Box Turtles in Our Garden

It is on wet, misty mornings like the ones we’ve had this week that Eastern box turtles (Terrapene carolina carolina) are encountered lumbering across roads in search of worms and other insects. If I’m on foot, I’ll simply help the turtle across the road. If I’m driving and it’s safe, I’ll pull over, activate my flashers and move the turtle to the berm, if possible in the direction it was heading.

The Eastern box turtle is most likely the best known turtle in Virginia, named for its ability to tuck in its head and legs and close up like a box, a defense action that causes thousands to be crushed beneath the wheels of automobiles each year. Deforestation for development is rapidly consuming the habitat of these gentle creatures that have survived for 250 million years. They have not been declared an endangered species although they are protected in some states. Once so numerous in my childhood, it’s apparent to me that the box turtles are disappearing from our landscape.

We do encounter these beautiful reptiles in our gardens and lawns in our rural area. Their diet consists of insects, fruits, mushrooms, berries and vegetables. Our dogs ignore them in the grass, the cats take a wide berth but I tell mister gardener that the greatest threat in crossing lawns is the tractor or lawn mower. It’s a good habit to always mow when the grass is dry and turtles have found cool shelter under mulch or leaf litter in the borders.

This male box turtle does not have the usual red eyes but does have bright orange legs.

Recently, while a passenger in my neighbor’s car, I said, “Stop the car! There’s a turtle.”  We were the only car on the road so I jumped out and helped a big male box turtle to the edge of the road. Upon returning, she said, “I’d never do that. How’d you know it wasn’t a snapping turtle?”  Had I known she didn’t know the difference, I would have brought it back to the car to show her.

Concave plastron is best indicator of male box turtle

A box turtle’s carapace, or top shell, is domed and each turtle is colored in a varied pattern of yellow or orange on brown.  The hinged lower shell, the plastron, is an indicator of the sex of the animal. Males have a concave shell and the female’s lower shell is flat. Males will often have bright red eyes, but not always! Females have brown or yellowish eyes.  The male carapace is brighter and their legs can have

This box turtle is approximately 20 years old

bright orange or red scales. The tail is longer on the male and their claws on the rear legs are thicker and more curved. The turtles you encounter could be 50 years old or more as their life span is over a hundred years. The approximate age of a turtle can be gauged by counting the growth rings on the bony plates of the carapace.

Although we have other species of turtles in the Commonwealth, the box turtle is our only terrestrial turtle. Others, such as snapping, musk, painted, spotted, so forth, are aquatic. Welcome these good-natured and ancient animals if you see them in your garden but avoid the temptation to pick one up elsewhere and bring it home. It’s now thought that they are territorial and will try to return to the original site.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Virginia

18 thoughts on “Box Turtles in Our Garden

    • Large turtles are usually the female snapping turtles that we see crossing roads at this time of year in search of a perfect spot to lay eggs. They are ferocious and can lunge forward or in the opposite direction and can sever fingers. If I move one of these from the road, I use my tennis racket to nudge it. I’m no fool.

      Numbers of these creatures are dwindling due to hunting it for meat, pollution and over development.

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  1. We save several from the roads every year. They are such gentle and delightful creatures. However, we have always released them in the local nature preserve. I guess we should keep them in the same general area.

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    • Well, the nature preserve sounds wonderful. If the area is being developed or reduced in size, a natural undisturbed woodland area can’t be bad.

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  2. In our woodland garden we have had the same box turtle living there for at least 5 years. We put some red nail polish on him so that we can identify him. We just saw him a few days ago so he is still alive and kicking!

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    • Cabell, does this bring back memories! We would do the same thing as kids, then find our old favorites year after year. I hope he has a lady friend in the garden and you’ll have a family.

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  3. Is there any way to acquire one? We have a good sheltered habitat far from fast roads, but I don’t think I have ever seen one here. My mother had a tortoise (as we called them) in England, and would report each spring when he emerged.

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    • Felicity, They are squished on fast roads and lazy back roads because their defense in the face of danger is to stop and close up like a box. So sad!
      It’s best not to make pets of these reptiles. They are thought to be territorial and will attempt to escape and return to their homes.

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  4. This gentle creature has always been my favorite animal. If they close up in a safe space, I always cut a warm tomato or watermelon to place near them, and when I come back they are usually eating it. I still see them in my West End Richmond garden, hiding, or crossing the dewy grass, or after a rain. They stay dusty, but shine when wet.
    I used to catch them when I was small, but I only touch them anymore when they are crossing a road. Yes, send them on the same way they were headed.
    Biologists say that the crisscrossing segmenting of America (the roads) is what is causing their demise.

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  5. I live in california and knew someone who always had box turtles in their garden. I’ve been wanting one for my garden for years. where can i acquire one? Thx, L.

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    • The Eastern Box Turtle is native to the East and Midwest. I believe it is illegal to ship in non-native turtles to California. Californians have the Desert Tortoise but numbers are declining and I believe there are strict laws governing ownership.

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  6. This past winter, the latter part of this year guessing ~ Feb of 2012 we got a lot of rain and freezing sleet here in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia. My son found what I think is a Ornate Box Turtle, maybe 5 or 6 years old. He was trying to cross a busy highway one night during a heavy storm and was not doing a good job of it.. He was in bad shape, the cold rains, and unusal flooding for that time of year had sent him from his hibernated spot due to flooding in the York County area of Virginia. My son, who is always saving these turtles and bringing them to me to find new homes brought me a new friend, I named..Louie.. (thank you son, I think) Louie, was so sick, swollen eyes, frothing from the nose and mouth area was slow moving, skinny, frail, not eating, and in short just not wating to live…he was in need of help. So I got busy doing research and I learned some things. A lot… to be frank I had to get busy..he was dying. I started giving him tepid baths twice a day, (he was not impressed nor cared) placing him in direct sun, and letting him move when he got ready. Not pushing him, just watching and waiting.. Weeks went by, I kept up the same routine, and kept him in a very large rubbermade container, full of everything a turtle needed to come out of the hibernated state WHEN he was ready. It was a mini Oasis in a large Rubbermade container..All the comforts of home for a box turtle. He was so ill, a respirtatory infection had set in before I got him. I don’t know how long he walked around before he was rescued…all I know, he was not going to make it much longer from what I understand from the experts I took him to if I didn’t up my care for him.. just wanting him to live was not enough.. ACTION had to be taken, So here goes. First let me say this. . I was told to just throw him in the woods and let mother nature take it’s course..and just let him die…Those were the exact words used. YES to all the questions you might be asking yourself.right now. Experts told me, I could not save him..So what did I have to lose by trying??.. he was bubbling at the nose and mouth and I would say ear problems as well. So I kept this routine at the beginning. It was tepid baths and warm humid air and daily doses of sun outside and homemade drops in his eyes that I made myself and by early spring, things began to change, he started to come around. Humm, could it be, THE experts were wrong? His eye plugs started to move around inside the sockets, (good he has eyes I thought) and with the help of the sun, homemade eye drops and maybe his will, he might make it.. I waited and he worked on getting better…he rubbed out the eye plugs in about 2 weeks once I saw them move. That two about 4 days to remove. And he did it all on his own..I can’t tell you how happy I was to see those beautiful red eyes. It’s now mid March of this year, he was so weak, it was hard for him to help himself. No fuel, he was not eating. But could it be, that he didn’t need food? I must say, it was becoming an enigma. He just wanted to live inside that shell..Sunlight would bring his head out and the natural sunlight caused his eyes to water. And he liked sitting in the sun for short periods..Maybe about an hour before I noticed he was wanted to move into shaded area’s. It was getting hot in there…lol So I would pick him up and move him in shade. Offer water to rehydrate and time seemed to creep slowly but I kept working very slowly, (if that is even possible with a turtle) April is here..2012. I knew I was on the right track when one day, he reached for moving bug. I was jumping for joy, funny how small things can bring joy to your life.. but he was just not fast enough. But the progress was, he seen it..YEAH! I am on some sort of tract here, it may be wrong, but something is wanting Louie to take back control back..Help me out here Mother Nature, I need you now more than ever.. Poor Louie.. he was hungry. The next day, while walking around in our wooded area of our yard. I was watching him the entire time to see what he was stopping and smelling, and what he was trying to move his mouth to.. Auuha.. you might want to eat soon, I am thinking.. and since he was so helpless. I might have to hand feed you.. Sure enough, in a round about way, through the help of dried out magnolia leaves, he was dipping his head into from time to time, I am going to try…you got it.. baby food. In less than 5 days Louie was eating. Just a bit here and there, but it was something…As time went by, I introduced everything I read about, was told about, guessed at… anything to help him along.. somethings he would just not attempt to try, others, he loved. He was..let’s say, picky..lol , NOW he perfers blackberries as a snack and crab, shrimp, worms, crickets, slugs, and loves mixed fresh vegtables, that I buy fresh from the local farmers market.. and I change out his diet, cause I figure he get’s tired of the same old thing as we do.. Right? It’s sping now, and Louie is…let’s saying starting to show signs of wanting to live and move around.. I think I saved his life, when I was told to toss him away.AGAIN… WHAT??? “He has to go find his home people are saying”,.Well to be honest here, that didn’t work out to well before for him, so I think I will help out a little more.. just saying.. People give up on people to easy, and wildlife I think deservers a chance as well… just saying, I think anything that has a heart, needs to be given a chance.. Back to Louie….It’s June now, but cool nights. I bring him at night until the temps reach a higher degree at night. Currently we get down to low 60’s and I was told to make sure it was at least 70 at night before leaving him alone at night outside in his container.. I fear other things might take him if I do so as well. I have becomed very attached to Louie as I am sure you can tell. .. He follows me and he likes the running water and just sprawls out in the drain spouts at the corners of our home. He walks at almost a run now, but only walks around the foundation of our home. Sometimes he will venture out into the trees, only to come back to the water hose area, and his eating place that stays full for him to eat when he feels like it. He has come a long way. I saved Louie, for now. He takes walks in the sun and then returns to his eating area to search for what ever I have put out, I have made him a small pond that he also basks in from time to time. I have read what he needs to stay healthy and feed him what he likes and mostly that little buddy loves to eat just about anything now even dry grasses and such. He is now huting on his own some but as of yet, needs to pick up on that speed.., just not quick enough yet. Also I fear I may of domesticated him A LOT.. So, in closing here is my questions.. When is comes time to hibernate again, will he search for a place? We have an ideal place under our porch with bugs, worms and other green saplings and wild life growing under the dark porch..Just about everything that don’t need direct sunlight grows underneath there. Every day, he goes to that porch and peers into that place and remembers where he came from.. Mother Nature taking over for me.. it’s a perfect place for him to go when September/October nears for him to hybernate. He can’t get in because of the lattace we have surroung the raised porch. I think we will add some more dirt, potting soil, purchace some logs that he can hide in when anything of danger approches. Just some safety zones.. some hide away spots if needed, but I was told he knows what to do..and to let him start exploring under there around September.. He was found walking along the road unable to fend for himself and I would like to think I saved Louie’s life and he loves walking around the yard while I garden., I know Louie needs to be set free and I will but right now, I would like your take, and thoughts about getting him to stay near us this winter.. Please take the time to give me your take on my story of Louie.. the Ornate Box Turtle, that was almost ran over, but saved by a young man that loves life as much as I do.. my son. Louie is a joy to watch and laugh at, I had no idea a turtle has so much personality.. And he helped me as well. another story there.. one that you would never believe. . Hope you enjoy my short story about “Louie’s Jounery”
    “All creatures, large, small, pretty, unattrative, cold blooded, or not, deserve the chance to live. Sometimes we just need to help them?” author: Wanda Smith
    Thanks for reading , and please any advice or comments are welcomed. I don’t claim to own Louie the box turtle but to only gave him a nudge to live, and to be released soon in an area to make a new home with a mate.. (comments of hatred towards wildlife or what I have done to save this turtle are unwelcomed and not needed) Have a glorious day, my friends.. enjoy nature.
    Wanda from Hampton Roads Virginia.

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  7. Wanda, we once kept a box turtle in our home for a few months. Then he disappeared. We looked everywhere for him. It was late fall, and we could not imagine how he could have escaped from our house. Some weeks later, we heard a “clunking” sound in the kitchen. We explored and found him making his way out from under the refrigerator! Evidently he had discovered a warm hiding place there in which to hibernate! We put him in a pan of water, as we had learned that was a good way to get him to drink. Sure enough — he was thirsty, after all those weeks under the refrigerator. Dusty too!

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  8. The first day I went to a new spa, I picked up a box turtle trying to cross a major highway. I was headed to the Laundromat in the same strip mall as the spa, so, not wanting to leave the turtle in the hot car, I plunked him on top of the clothes, and carried him in with the clothes. After I’d put my duds in the suds, I left him in the laundry basket, as a sort of playpen, and asked the attendant to keep an eye on him.
    When I got back, we struck up a conversation, and I explained I was going to take him back to the house and put him in the woods. “I hope you don’t think I’m a complete nut.” “Oh, let’s just say I meet a lot of interesting people in this job.” We were friends until they closed the place down.

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