Yard box turtles

The favorite wild animal of Llaneros

Published Sep 26th 1999 in Wildlife

It is 6:30 a.m. and there is knocking at the door. It is too early for a visitor to the Gone Native Arboretum– what is going on? When the door is opened, Yellowhead is peering up. “Where is breakfast- how come the door is not open?” He comes in, turns the corner to the cat food bowl, lowers his head, and CRUNCH. The cat gallops in, as well, but quickly applies the brakes, to loom above Yellowhead like a vulture – “Dadgum turtle…jeez.”

Yellowhead nibbles away for ten minutes, and then strolls through the house. Once, and only once, has he marked the house as his territory with one neat, tidy dropping. “No beetles have snuck in, boss.” Back he goes, out the door, his shell thumping as he clambers down the stoop. “Dessert-time… I’m glad my humans brought the pile of prickly pear fruit to the porch.” He rolls over a couple of the tunas, finally selecting one with the proper softness.

Yellowhead raises his head as One-spot ambles by on the way to the cat food. One-spot is a little shy – if one of the humans moves too much at the breakfast table, she bolts for the door. She does not explore the house and if a cat wants to eat, she deferentially makes way. “Ooh, pardon me.”

Two new turtles have followed these long-time residents to the cat food bowl this year, though they have only visited once. For them, it must be a little too strange entering a human’s house to compete with four-legged monster kitties. The smaller of the two, Little Pee-body, came in boldly, neck arched, peering every which way. She did not pull her head in when approached, but when picked up and examined, named herself. White-neck panicked and ran for cover when the humans unexpectedly returned from their early morning walk, disappearing under the bed. The shock of being carried out the door imprinted a permanent wariness, but she does appreciate the prickly pear tunas.

Fancy-legs and Big-girl prefer the herb garden. Big-girl lives in the compost pile next to the Scent Room. When she comes out to explore, the smell of scented geraniums and patchouli wafts about the adjacent area, announcing her presence. “We know you are awake, Big-girl… come out, come out, wherever you are,” She is not the friendly sort. She is big and old, set in her ways, downright business-like in her morning food patrol. Fancy-legs is a roly-poly hunter par excellence. She moves slowly, digging in the mulch. Despite her valiant efforts the roly-polies decimated the Sweet-woodruff, but she helped keep the Woad alive in its early days.

Old Man moved from the shadehouse to the tall-grass this year. Last year, he and Big-girl claimed the shade house together, and no other turtle stayed long in their neighborhood. But Big-girl must not have “come into season” this year, and with the drought, Old Man probably preferred the deep mulch of old tall grass stalks. He has only come out the few times more than half an inch of rain fell. Perhaps he was looking for earthworms in the early morning, before the clouds melted away.

Out in the pasture, a turtle with very narrow yellow lines roams. Her territory is much larger than that of the turtles who inhabit the cultivated gardens near at the house. She has not yet received a name. Sometimes she is called Dit-dot-dit, for the pattern on her back, and sometimes Lonely-girl, because she seems to dislike the company of other turtles.

Tattered-and-torn died last winter. She was a consistent cat food gourmand for most of last summer, but in early winter she was found dead by the pond, upside down and fleshless. Normally, turtles are able to right themselves if accidentally rolled onto their backs. What turned Tattered-and-torn over is unknown. It may have been a stray dog, or a hungry coyote. Maybe a raccoon came by, and got bored waiting for her to stick her neck and legs out to turn over, and left her to die. Tattered-and-torn’s shell is on a place of honor on top of the “folly” by the pond.

[In Ireland a garden feature that made to look like an old ruin is called a “folly.” The Gone Native folly is a vegetated mound with old brick steps leading to the top, where a large stump represents an altar. A flag bearing the image of the famous rock-art drawing of a shaman from Panther Cave near Del Rio marks the entrance. Flameleaf Sumac, Four-wing Saltbush, Nolina, and Prickly Pear surround the central open area on the mound’s top. The folly serves as a wonderful “blind” for watching kingfishers, herons, and other birds that come to the water.]

Box Turtles do not often visit the pond area. They may be disgusted by the presence of several stinkpots, or Yellow Mud Turtles. The stinkpots are almost never seen. Once in a while, their tracks lead across the silty, fishpoop mud in the shallows. Stinkpots reportedly eat frogs, but a respectable population of Leopard Frogs has maintained itself for years. A rescued Bullfrog was introduced this year, but so far ol’ Jug-o-rum has not diminished the Leopard Frog population either. A big Texas Pond Slider, rescued and released at the Arboretum ponds, has not been seen again. Possibly a gravid female searching for a proper nesting spot, she may have found location lacking and continued her hike.

An unknown number of additional Box Turtles have been spotted along the trails of the Arboretum. Box Turtles in average West Texas pastureland need a home range of five to ten acres. These other turtles occasionally show up at the edge of the planted areas, and may be observed several times, before they disappear again. Do the resident turtles chase them away? Is there some form of turtle communication ( maybe pheromones?) that informs the visiting turtles that carrying capacity has been reached in the Arboretum? Why are the two turtles who reside in the Fruiting Mulberry Thicket or in the Jujube Grove much shyer than the other Arboretum turtles?

The turtles of Gone Native appear to follow natural patterns in their lives. People with backyard populations of ten or more report that their turtles are visible much more often than the Arboretum turtles. Many of the turtles at the Arboretum come out for a week or two, roam around, visit the house, then disappear for two weeks at a time. This cycle continues throughout the year. Wild turtles in the pasture may only emerge in rainy periods, or when driven out by hunger during a drought.

What makes backyard turtles so much more active? Is there more competition? (Competition for space, that is, since backyard turtles are normally well-fed.) The Gone Native turtles do not get the swollen eyes or lumps on their necks that affect some backyard turtles. Are these maladies a symptom of stress which afflict the backyard turtles?

Baby Box Turtles are never seen at the Arboretum. Little Pee-body is the smallest, and she is at least three years old. Two yearling box turtles were released last year. One was seen a short time later, after digging a hole on the “Rock Hill,” a mound of gravel and composted cottonhulls used for experimenting with the cultivation of west Texas plants that thrive on gravelly hillsides. Is the resident gray fox able to eat baby turtles whole? Did it eat the yearling box turtles, too? Does Magoosh the roadrunner eat baby Box Turtles, as well? Are the babies driven from the cultivated area by the other turtles?

Turtles are wonderful neighbors!