Column -Few things stand test of time like snapping turtles

Published 4:27 pm Monday, June 17, 2024

One of our first four-legged visitors in the spring of 1975, a couple of months after we moved into the farmhouse on Mill Swamp Road, was a snapping turtle.

The sandy hill on which the old Bergen House was built is the highest ground around. It’s well drained, light soil and has sunny spots that are quick to warm up in the spring. It’s also quite close to a swampy stream bottom leading from the Pagan River. Just a perfect nursery for these ancient reptiles to perpetuate their breed.

And so, this mother-to-be came waddling up from the woods, dug a hole right smack dab in the middle of the area long since designated for parking cars. She backed down into, disgorged her eggs, then covered them so neatly that we, and presumably predators of all kinds, would have difficulty finding them. She then waddled off, her reproductive duties done.

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And so it has been for the past 49 years. I don’t know that it’s the same snapper, but given they can live well beyond a century, it’s altogether likely that the visitor we had last week was her. She — or another, though I like to think it our longtime visitor— has returned to the same precise spot each year. Never mind that we paved the parking lot nearly two decades ago. She comes to that very spot, before ambling off to the side to find what she hopes will be a suitable alternative to the nesting ground we stole from her.

She’s not the only snapper to visit us. This spring, we have counted three, and that’s typically the number that visit the yard every year. When our children were small, we cautioned them not to mess with the “cute turtles.” And at one time we had a dog that went a bit berserk each spring when the lumbering snappers arrived. He would bark at them but had the good sense not to get too close.

These lumbering visitors cause no trouble and, once they have concluded their business, they leave for another year. It’s a ritual we have long looked forward to.

We would dearly love to see turtle hatchlings dig their way out of the ground, but never to the point that we established a turtle watch. We’ll leave that to the sea turtle enthusiasts. Fact is, I never can guess just when baby turtles will emerge from the eggs these ancients lay, because it totally depends on heat units — how quickly the earth around the eggs incubates them. Nevertheless, we generally get to see one or two baby snappers furiously beating a path to safety in the low ground of the stream bed.

Snapping turtles are one of nature’s most enduring animals. Scientists tell us they have inhabited North America for almost 90 million years and have been somewhere on earth for a total of 230 million years. That puts them here before the dinosaurs, and that’s impressive.

To continue reproducing, females like those that visit us lay 20 to 40 eggs each spring. Of those, only about 5% will hatch (one out of 20 eggs on average) and only 1% of those that make it out of the shell will survive to reproductive age — about 15 years.

Adult snappers aren’t immune to trouble, either. Their slow migration across busy highways this time of year inevitably thins the population.

The sex of the turtles-to-be is determined by the soil temperature during incubation. Eggs that remain at 68 degrees produce only females, while warmer soil temperature will produce a mix of male and female, and even warmer temperature will produce only males.

Snappers are voracious predators. They’ll eat most anything they can catch and hold on to, as anyone who has tried to raise ducks on a pond can tell you. 

They also are a favored food in some cultures, including locally a couple of generations ago. (There’s a recipe for turtle stew in the original Smithfield Cookbook, Page 66, if you’re inclined to try it.) Today, few people prepare turtle soup at home, but there are still restaurants where it’s offered. 

Snappers aren’t considered endangered and can still be caught and sold commercially as a food source in Virginia. There are permit requirements, size limits and an annual season.

You don’t find a lot of turtlers around these days, but in earlier times, catching turtles for sale was profitable. An earlier generation of old folks used to say you could always tell a turtle trapper because he would be missing one or two fingers. That may have been an exaggeration, but a snapper’s ability to ruin your day is just as real now as it ever was. It’s a good idea to respect their ability to do so.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is