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Anne K Moore
Photographs Anne K Moore

It is interesting to me that most people will not tolerate snakes in their garden but most will accept turtles without any screaming or beating or chopping. When it comes to doing work for the gardener, of the two reptiles the snake is just as helpful as the turtle. However, I’m not here to change your mind about snakes, at least not this week.

Eastern Box turtles (Terrapene carolina) are on the decline and do deserve our help. There are several reasons for the decline of the box turtle. Most have to do with habitat loss. As young turtles strike out to find a range of their own, cars often hit them. Maybe you, like me, have stopped for a kind soul ushering a turtle across the road to safety. In fact, I have done this myself. A caution, though. If you pick up a turtle to move it to safety, be sure to carry it in the direction it was heading. If you take it back where it came from, it will just head back across the road again. Turtles are single-minded when they decide to leave an area. Putting them back won’t help and could subject them to a road crossing more than once.

Other turtle killers are lawnmowers and surprising enough, trains.

Box turtles live anywhere from 25-30 years and some even up to 50 years. At 10 years old they are sexually mature. The female lays 3-6 eggs in early spring in a shallow nest. Baby box turtles hatch in the fall and are only 1 ¼ inches long. These little ones are seldom seen since they hide under mulch and leaf litter, dining on insects and earthworms until they reach about 4 inches.

For some reason unbeknownst to me, box turtles do not enjoy protection from wild collecting as do other forms of native wildlife. They are for sale in pet stores. Maybe it is that reptile thing. If you protect a turtle, do you then have to protect a snake? At any rate since these turtles are so long lived, it is not a good idea to purchase one from a pet store and take it home to your children. Many don’t survive the ill treatment, further decimating their numbers.

According to guidelines from the Davidson College Box Turtle Study, Davidson North Carolina, “Never release a pet box turtle into the wild unless you know exactly where it came from. Box turtles have a(n) homing instinct that causes them to try to return to the place where they were born, even if they have been moved. If you decide to release the turtle, this search for their homeland causes the turtle to encounter such dangers as roads, predators, and humans.” If you don’t know its home range, then give your turtle to another turtle lover or to a rescue group where it can live out its often long life in safety.

We have had two resident box turtles in our garden. The female is almost twice as large as the male and her shell is beige, a much lighter shade than the smaller males. (Don’t ask how I know the difference between the two turtles.) She seems to have left our grounds. Maybe she has gone to find a more suitable area to make a nest and lay her eggs, and just hasn’t found her way home yet. The male sticks around, though. Every once in awhile we leave him a treat on the ground, a piece of bread, a soft tomato, or his favorite, a melon rind to clean out. Doesn’t matter what kind of melon it is, he comes running as fast as his little turtle legs can move to get to his favorite snacks.

So much of their wild range has disappeared; even a small garden patch covered with leaf litter can be home to these endearing turtles. And, even though they are land animals, not aquatic, they do need a shallow water source for drinking and standing in on hot afternoons.

Posted September 6, 2013

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