The autumn leaves are a blessing and a curse for box turtles. The box turtles’ natural forest-floor camouflage makes them very difficult for drivers to see among all of the fallen leaves in the road. We found a road-killed one this week.
Thick mats or piles of fallen leaves are also natural cover and a “grocery store” for box turtles. This year’s hatchlings will use the leaf litter to conceal themselves from predators. Leaf litter encourages growth of the invertebrates and flora that box turtles eat to prepare for brumation, or reptilian hibernation. Box turtles will pursue these small animals and plants with gusto so that the turtles will have the fat to sustain themselves over the winter. Within the next 30-45 days, they will start hunkering down for the winter in shallow depressions that have a 1-3″ deep blanket of leaves over them for insulation.
So, what to do?
Well, in terms of turtles on the road, the only advice that I can offer is to SLOW DOWN. You just have to be careful. And those leaves in your yard? My suggestion would be rake or blow them into “turtle friendly” piles or mats away from the places that you want to be leaf-free. Leaves are a cheap and effective natural mulch into which turtles will burrow down for the winter. If you must burn leaves or brush, then do so immediately after you’ve raked them up. That will minimize the opportunity for a turtle to find the pile, burrow into it, and then die in the subsequent fire. A brumating turtle may not be harmed by the fire itself. It could die later from the cold, though, if its leafy blanket were burned away.
This leafy “problem” can also be an opportunity for you to encourage turtles and other wildlife. Please consider making leaf- or brush piles in quiet areas of your yard. Turtles and other animals will burrow down in them for winter. Any brush or limbs stacked loosely atop the leaves will further shelter them from predators, the cold wind, and larger animals or vehicles that might crush them. Birds and mammals will also use the brush for shelter. Raptors may check them for a quick meal.
The Box Turtle Connection offers some construction plans in their September 2015 newsletter. Try to make the piles six- to ten feet in diameter. A good pile doesn’t have to be elaborate. The simplest method may be to rake or blow leaves into piles up to a foot thick. Try placing brush or limbs atop it to make a tall pile without compressing the leaves. Piles in wooded areas, particularly around large trees, will be more likely to attract turtles. Even a pile in a pasture can still draw in the box turtles, as neighbor Rick Dappen can attest. Rick found one while he was tidying up a brush pile.
“Turtle season” is winding down for 2015 so let’s remember to make the roads and yards a little more turtle-friendly.