Box Turtles On The Move: What They’re Up To & How You Can Help

Whether you're mowing a field or driving back from the feed store, use extra caution to protect slow-moving box turtles from threat of danger.

by Susan Brackney
PHOTO: Susan Brackney

From now through fall, you may find box turtles slowly crossing through gardens, farm fields and roads. Depending on your location, you could encounter an eastern box turtle or one of their western counterparts. Sadly, it’s all too easy to accidentally injure traveling turtles with farm equipment or the family car.

In general, human activity has made life more difficult for turtles. For instance, illegal traffickers continue to snatch turtles from the wild to be sold as pets. And, as we take more and more of their natural habitat for our own use, turtles must navigate increasingly fragmented landscapes.

Certain pesticides in the environment have also set turtle populations back.

The Big Picture

According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, “As of 2022, more than 49 species of land, aquatic, and sea turtles are protected as endangered or threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).”

Individual states have also enacted protections for some species; however, these vary widely.

Case in point, in my own state of Indiana, it’s illegal to collect box turtles from the wild. It’s also illegal to take box turtle eggs or even empty turtle shells from the wild. (Nevertheless, Indiana law does allow residents to keep box turtles as pets if the animals came from another state.)

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Fortunately, outside groups like the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) also are stepping in to offer extra help. AZA formed the Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) program in early 2020. SAFE’s American turtle-related work specifically applies to all box turtle species, as well as bog turtles, spotted turtles, wood turtles and Blanding’s turtles.

Read more: Box turtles in the garden offer a lesson in slowing down.

How You Can Help

Turtles’ natural habitat is at a premium. That’s why, if you tend a farm, forested land or even a large garden, you just might cross paths with them.

Box turtles are omnivorous. Most often they eat insects, slugs, mushrooms, tomatoes and other fruits and veggies. They’re especially active during the cooler parts of the day—think early mornings and evenings.

And, when you see turtles crossing busy roads? These are often females looking for a good spot to lay eggs.

There are a few ways you can help these special creatures.

First, if you see a turtle trying to traverse a busy road, take care not to hit it with your car. If you’re able to do so safely, pull over and carry the turtle across in the direction it was facing.

And, if you’re about to string-trim or mow in potential turtle habitat, take a quick walk-through first. (Terrestrial turtles prefer forest edges and meadows near streams or ponds.)

Have a brush pile you plan to shred? Check it carefully first, too. If you discover a turtle or a turtle nest, give them a wide berth.

Read more: Help farm wildlife thrive with these tips.

Turtle Nests

A female turtle will dig a shallow trough in the ground in which to lay her eggs. She might lay just one egg or she could lay as many as seven in this nest. Then she covers the eggs up with dirt. About four months later, tiny turtles hatch out of the eggs.

Despite their protective armor, box turtles have plenty of predators. Coyotes and dogs, raccoons, skunks and even crows will eat baby turtles and turtle eggs. As for any turtle hatchlings that do survive? They won’t begin reproducing until they’re 8 to 10 years old.

So, if you do find turtle eggs on your property, you just might want to help protect them. According to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, “A mesh fence may be placed around a nest to protect eggs from predators. This enclosure should be checked daily to ensure that newly emerging turtles are not caught.”

Sick or Injured Turtles

Despite our best efforts, what if we do manage to injure a turtle? Or what if you find a turtle that appears to be sick or injured? Adult turtles are actually pretty tough. (Some may live to be 60 to 100 years old!) Often, if left alone, they will heal on their own.

Still, if the turtle’s condition appears to be very serious, contact your local wildlife rehabilitation group or similar agency for help. (Your state’s department of natural resources may also be able to connect you with nearby wildlife rehabilitation experts.)

If a wildlife rehabilitation organization asks you to bring the turtle to them for care, always document the turtle’s exact location before you move it. That means taking good photos, making notes and, if you have a smartphone, dropping a GPS “pin” on the location.

Why go to the trouble? Once it’s rehabilitated, the turtle must be returned to its original spot.

Your rehabbed turtle—and most box turtles, actually—live within very limited geographic areas. (The typical eastern box turtle spends its entire life in a home territory measuring just under 1,000 feet in diameter.)

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