Friday, March 30, 2012

Box Turtles Emerge from Winter Hibernation

Many of you will remember that last summer 3 Western Box Turtles arrived at Czar of the Woods Farm.  They were rescued turtles that my friend eric needed to find a new home for.  You can read about their arrival here.  They live in an outdoor enclosure that my Dad and I built on our property.

One of the best things to do for them, because it helps prolong their life by mimicking what they would do in the wild, is to hibernate them over the winter.  This can be done by leaving them outside as they would do in the wild.  Since we get such cold winters here in the Buffalo area (surprise) I was hesitant to do this.  Our frost line can go down to at least 3 ft below the surface of the ground if not more.  I was nervous that they would not be able to dig far enough to protect themselves from this.  You can also hibernate them in rubber made containers filled with a peat moss substrate in a refrigerator or in a building that stays between 35-45 degrees F.  Our barn was the perfect choice because the horses generate enough heat by eating and making manure to keep the temps at just that perfect zone.  So needless to say they spent the winter in clear, peat moss and straw filled rubber made containers will holes drilled in the top as you can see here.

It is also amazing that on the day this photo was taken it was still quite brown in the enclosure and everywhere.  In less than a week of high temps everything turned green and the grass was growing, trees started to leaf.  Amazing!

After a very mild winter with very little snow, last week the temp outside stayed in the 70's and even reached 85 at one point.  This is unheard of for mid-March in the Western New York area and while I doubted it would stay that way for long it was time to put the turtles back outside in their enclosure and end their winter slumber.

The day that they went back was in the 70's and sunny, perfect for turtles.  They stayed quite groggy but I thought they might be hungry so I put out small pieces of banana; one of their favorite foods, for them to eat.  As the sun set for the night and I knew it was going to be cold that evening but being cold blooded their bodies would adjust as needed.  I was worried though.  Just as hibernating them never felt quite right (even thought it IS what is best for them) neither did simply "un-hibernating" them and so quickly returning them to their enclosure.

The next morning I was eager to check on them to see how they faired and I could only find 2 out of the 3.  I scoured the enclosure up and down.  It's about 15' X 15' and I could not find the third one which I believe to be "Esteban" (the other 2 are "Tito" and "Emmett").  Very quickly I ended up knowing the enclosure like the back of my hand from microscopically searching it.  When I returned from work I searched again, and mind you the sun had warmed the temps into the 70's that day and the other 2 turtles, although still groggy, were exploring.  Still couldn't find him and I was growing more and more concerned.  What concerned me the most is that all the banana was gone yet it didn't appear that the turtles were interested in eating yet.  The enclosure does not have a roof or cover on it so I started to convince myself that a raccoon had entered, eaten the "bait" and taken a turtle out of the enclosure.  While I did not think it possible for them to be able to carry the weight of a box turtle in their mouth, not to mention that box turtles clamp tight like a clam when threatened, while getting out of the enclosure I did then research it on-line and other people have reported that this has happened to their turtles.  I knew he was gone and I was very sad about it.  Here they had done so well all winter and in less than 24 hrs tragedy struck.  So in addition to still scouring their home I then scoured the surrounding area, which is full of perfect camouflage for turtles, meaning that finding a turtle or part of one was like trying to find a needle in a hay stack.  But I kept searching, for days.  Spent several hours in total.  Even if I found part of him or found him dead at least I would know and have some closure.  My friend eric told me to hold out hope and he felt that maybe he burrowed down (I was not hopeful because there was no evidence of turtle digging anywhere) and he told me that a turtle of his that he was certain was gone showed up 8 months later!

In my mind I played back what I did wrong and was convinced that the banana (that was unnecessary since it turned out they weren't eating yet) baited the raccoon into the enclosure and it then found a turtle that was too groggy/slow, and cold at night, to defend itself by clamping its shell tight and that was that.  I had basically given up hope and continued to search the area when I could, hoping to find some evidence.  I never did even see raccoon prints or raccoon scat.  I even climbed into the willow tree that overlooks the turtle area thinking that raccoons take things up but nothing.

5 days had gone by and my attention then turned to Emmett (photo above) who seems a bit slow to come out of hibernation.  Not too active and was keeping his eyes mostly closed.  I took him to work (I am a Licensed Veterinary Technician) and the doctor couldn't find anything wrong with him and the trip seemed to be all he needed as it "woke" him up.  I returned him to his home where Tito awaited.  I had by that point seen Tito eating a worm so this was encouraging.
The next day I went to check on the turtles and counted "there's one, and there's two....and three.  Wait, what?  THERE'S THREE!"  Esteban was alive and had emerged from somewhere!  The 85 degree weather brought him out again.  He was covered in mud and as it turns out he did find a soft spot, dug down, most likely to keep warm and somehow left no evidence.  I was so happy.
The days continued to be warm and the turtles were loving life.  The sun warmed them for days and I had by that point witnessed all three of them eating.
The temps have since dropped, 30's-50's during the day and 20's-30's at night, and the turtles have re-entered a pseudo hibernation; each finding a cozy spot to bunker down.  Esteban is back in the spot where he hid from me.  They should be fine until we get warm again.  What drama!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I know exactly what you were going through missing a turtle - I have one who is a magician! Often I can't find him anywhere for days yet he magically appears eventually and in fall he is always the first to hibernate and digs down very deep and every year comes out of hibernation 3 - 4 weeks after everyone else is out in spring. He happens to have the most perfect design of eastern box turtle's I've ever seen with near perfect bullseyes on each scute! As a matter of fact he is the first box turtle pictured on this link: