The Box Turtle

The perfect model for life in the summer

Published Jul 7th 2010 in Wildlife

The favorite wild animal of many people on the Llano Estacado is the box turtle. Everyone knows somebody with five to twenty turtles in their back yard. The box turtle is our mascot, the animal we have chosen to represent Sibley. Turtles are wonderful and admirable neighbors. Consider the qualities of turtles: tough and enduring, watchful, tidy, quiet and dignified, purposeful, respectful, and gentle. Turtles keep trying, plan ahead, love their home territory, and are smart.

Early in the morning, about the time of the Pyrrhuloxia's and Painted Bunting's first songs, there is a quiet beat, a scuffling in the underbrush. I sit watching the first hummingbirds feed and realize the sounds of night have died away - but that the custodian of the desert is making his rounds. He feeds on prickly pear fruit that has dropped to the ground, ripened ground cherries, and carrion., He has been around since the desert began. He is a box turtle.

In eons past he developed a fine life style. He lives as long as man and has adjusted to life and his environment quite well. He comes from hibernation in spring, usually mid-April, and spends a month exploring how his world has changed since he went underground the October before. Beginning in May, he mates, and the female stores enough sperm to fertilize several clutches of eggs. Turtles have developed lovemaking to a high art, the actual copulation sometimes lasting two or three hours, In late summer and early fall he harvests what the desert provides, storing food in his body for his half year snooze.

The box turtle's daily cycle is ideal for life in the desert. He awakes early in the morning and hunts for his food, from several hours before sunrise to three hours afterwards. Then he goes underground, not coming out until just before sunset. He feeds for another two hours, then sleeps hidden again.

He does not have a very large home range and I find the same turtles day after day in the same small area. According to research males use ten acres and females five. The box turtle is a true desert dweller and does not need water. He does drink when water is available and I often find one drinking at puddles.

In folklore the turtle is usually considered to be wise and to be the foundation the earth rests on in space. In some myths land itself is the top of a turtle's shell. Mercury made the first lute from the shell of a turtle he found on the banks of the Nile. Our own box turtle was supposedly evil, bringing droughts, causing the Creek Indians to smash them in dry spells.

Turtles are rarely mean, and many Midland youngsters have box turtles for pets. But the oldest of the ones inhabiting the mesquite patch at Sibley hisses and snaps at any possible predator and tries hard to bite if he is picked up, Box turtles have a relatively trouble free life, as only the young ones can be killed by predators (usually hawks and ravens) and an adult turtle only has automobiles and big brave hunters with 22 rifles to contend with. The box turtle knows how to exist in the heat of a Texas summer. He works in the morning and in the evening, the rest of the time he siestas. He polices his plot of land; he is the guardian and sanitary engineer.

What makes backyard turtles so much more active? Is there more competition? (Competition for space, that is, since backyard turtles are normally well-fed.) Wild box 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? Wild turtles in the pasture may only emerge from the ground in rainy periods, or when driven out by hunger during a drought.

A few years ago a favorite turtle that we named "Tattered-and-torn" died. 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.