FORSYTH — Forget the chicken: Why did the turtle cross the road?
In spring and early summer, probably to find food, a mate or a nest site.
Particularly after rain, turtles and other wildlife wander, sometimes venturing by day onto county roads and state highways that double as death traps for the unsuspecting creatures. The road-kill lineup varies from diamondback terrapins on the coast to fledgling mockingbirds along back roads in the Piedmont.
Senior wildlife biologist John Jensen of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources encouraged drivers to be alert. "At this time of the year, be more aware of what might be in the road," Jensen said.
Road-kill statistics are not comprehensive. But a 17-month Purdue University study counted 10,500 animals and more than 65 species dead — mostly frogs and other amphibians — on 11 miles of roads in Indiana.
Closer to home, the Jekyll Island Sea Turtle Center estimated that vehicles hit and killed more than 300 diamondback terrapins in 2007 just on the Jekyll Island causeway, according to a University of Georgia article on a State Wildlife Grant study assessing the state’s diamondback terrapin populations.
Female terrapins search out high ground to nest. In the marsh these turtles inhabit, causeways and other roads are high ground, said Jensen, who works with the Nongame Conservation Section in DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division.
Other creatures pay a toll, too. Box turtles, found statewide, move more after rains in spring and summer, searching out earthworms and other prey, mates and, for females, places to lay eggs. The rain not only softens the ground, it can mask the turtle’s scent, helping safeguard the buried eggs.
Turtles are long-lived, late-bearing species whose young already face low odds of survival. "It’s not good for any turtle to be lost," Jensen said. "But for a gravid … female that gets hurt and killed on the road, you’ve lost her and her eggs."
Jim Ozier, a nongame conservation section program manager, said young birds also often end up on the asphalt. This spring, he has seen immature mockingbirds hunkered down on country roads where nearby fencerows serve as nesting habitat. Fledgling killdeer, likely from roadside nests, also sometimes scamper into the path of traffic.
The potential for run-ins increases as development crisscrosses Georgia’s landscape with more roads, further fragmenting wildlife habitat.
Ozier said the threat posed by vehicles is not a conservation issue for most species. But drivers who are watching the road can sometimes easily avoid turning a road-crossing creature into a punch line.
"We certainly don’t encourage motorists to risk human safety in any way," Ozier said. "There’s nothing you can do if a squirrel decides to hide under your tire, but any driver should be capable of safely avoiding a turtle."