If box turtles live on your land, consider yourself lucky. You can help their remarkable species survive. Terrestrial turtles need isolation, and a variety of food and cover. Most parcels meet some of these criteria, but improvements are easy. Eventually, natural processes will restore good habitat. Learn about and encourage the ideal conditions.
Humans activities pose the greatest threat to box turtle survival. Protecting existing turtle colonies from people, and their machines, is the best hope for the turtles’ future in the wild. Careful, thoughtful stewardship can ensure or enhance that future.
The science of box turtle habitat stewardship is dramatically incomplete. Frankly, few landowners will follow scientific guidelines. So, these pages focus on the activities of wildlife, who understand more than scientists ever will. The observations here are for typical people, with typical land, who care about turtles. They apply to native colonies in southwest Michigan, but may serve elsewhere.
The principles are simple.
- The turtles know. They know best. We’re only guessing.
- Natural processes eventually work in turtles’ favor, but slowly.
- With careful effort, humans can help speed some natural processes.
- Any process or effect that began with European settlement is not natural.
Only a handful of ‘natural’ landscapes remain in Southwest Michigan. Slowly, natural processes are healing some land damaged by over a century of abuse. However, few parcels are diverse enough to meet box turtles’ needs fully. To assure their survival, we must consider what a century of healing might bring, and encourage that outcome today.
Of course, you personally can not pursue a 100-year stewardship plan. Nor can you do every thing that might promote box turtle survival. Luckily, even a few simple steps can help. Your effort may allow today’s adult turtles to reproduce; their young may motivate another landowner fifty years hence. Any step you take could make the difference.
To improve turtle habitat, consider at every turn, “What does a box turtle need? If box turtles could ask, what would they ask for?” You may be surprised at how often the answer is obvious, and how quickly the turtles take advantage of your response.
Our society is driven by what people want. Reduce your concern for what people want, and focus on what turtles need. Thousands of people pay (or are paid) to create trivial conditions people want–this little road, that little plat. When you care for wildlife, you focus on higher values. Human concepts like “pretty” and “profitable” will mean nothing to the last surviving turtle, as it wanders alone down a subdivision cul-de-sac.
So, what would box turtles ask for? In short, they need a sunny clearing with many small fruiting plants, few grasses, and no trees. This glade is surrounded by mature, diverse woodland. One edge is a little wet and rich; another is elevated and sandy. The entire campus is isolated from roads and other human activities by hundreds of feet–the further the better.
Ideal habitat answers many requests:
- I need everything to be close to my home.
- A box turtle may live longer than a human, all within a few acres. Human activity, particularly auto traffic, is the leading cause of death. Provide complete and diverse habitat as close together as possible, with no intervening roads, lawns, or houses.
- I need to see wet soils remain moist and open.
- Eastern box turtles require variety. However, changes in their water regime are unhealthy. Moist soils provide rest on hot days, a variety of foods, and water. Any wet space–a swamp, marsh, or damp forest depression–may be an absolute essential to survival locally.
- I need a sunny spot to bask and reproduce.
- Eastern box turtles seek the sun, both seasonally and by the hour. Successful nesting demands clear patches of warm sand, under an open sky. Keep large, isolated clearings, or sunseekers may end up in a deadly roadway.
- I need living space that will last a lifetime and beyond.
- Given a chance, turtles will outlive you. However, today’s healthy box turtle habitat may not persist. Natural processes often turn sunny clearings into thin, unhealthy woods. Consider ways to keep habitat intact, functioning, and legally protected for future generations.
- I need privacy, security, and stability.
- Site conditions dictate survival for individuals and the species. If you are blessed to see box turtles on your land, their physical isolation is your utmost priority. Limit roads and traffic, educate neighbors, and exclude humans and other predators.
- I need protection from people–all kinds.
- Land stewards, pet lovers, and even casual hikers can do unintended harm. Good intentions don’t help a dead turtle. Enforce a few simples rules, including all your grade school lessons: be careful, be clean, be cautious…
- I need a tremendous variety of native foods.
- Box turtles may eat anything organic, tasty to you or not. If flora or fauna are involved, it might be food. Leave places for insects and fungi to flourish. In the sun, encourage dense clusters of brambles, and let the rotted fruit fall.
- I need a safe place to settle for the winter.
- Cold weather forces box turtles under cover, or underground. Preserve areas with mature trees and soft, loose soil. Remove weedy plants, and reduce human activities. Let leafy boughs lie where they fall, and expand brush piles during the growing season.