One bright spring morning several years ago, my little girls came running up the steps holding something brown and round, its stubby legs flailing. Eyes wide and sparkling, they could barely contain their excitement as they proudly lifted high their latest find, snatched up by little hands as it moseyed slowly across the driveway.
" OK," I said. "We'll keep it just long enough to learn a bit about it and take a look at it more closely. Then, we'll turn it loose back where it belongs and send it on its way."
Well, that was the plan. Little did I know how this curious little creature would find its way into our menagerie of pets and stay with us for several years. The little fellow was a male Eastern Box Turtle, and he soon became known as"Wendell". He proved to be a special addition to our household during our daughters' growing-up years.
Wendell was unusual as box turtles go. He never seemed to fear being handled, and he made several trips back and forth to school over the years as a tiny ambassador for one of Illinois' most common reptile species. The kids in the girls' classes were fascinated, and they always wanted to hold him. Wendell, though plucked from the wild, just took it all in stride. He always held his head up high when we entered the room, watching and waiting eagerly in his terrarium for the latest strawberry, banana, or juicy earthworm that would be his next meal. When a tasty tidbit was dropped onto his feeding plate, he went after it with gusto and didn't seem to mind who was watching, always diving in and deftly seizing chunks of fruit as fast as his turtle-ly beak could grab them. June bugs were a special treat, and the girls would have fun collecting them for him on warm June evenings as they buzzed around our porch light. They're fairly awkward and slow moving, so Wendell had no trouble snatching them up. He seemed to thoroughly enjoy them, treating them like they were a delicacy – a kind of crunchy sushi. Wendell was fun to watch – most of the time. When an earthworm was offered, he'd lunge for it with great enthusiasm, chopping its writhing body into bits in short order. Then he'd snatch up the sections in awkward, successive gulps. Oh, it was gruesome. My daughters, of course, were delighted. They couldn't wait to feed him again!
Terrapene carolina – Eastern Box Turtle
A fairly small, land-dwelling reptile, the eastern box turtle is probably one of the most familiar turtles in the U.S. A most distinguishing characteristic is that it can pull in its head and legs and close up like a box when startled, hence its common name. The top shell (carapace) is highly domed, and the coloring typically consists of yellow or orange markings on a uniformly dark brown background, often arranged in many striking patterns. This top shell is usually under six inches long, even in the oldest adult males. The lower shell (plastron), on the "belly" side, is usually tan or yellowish brown with a hinge on the front portion to allow it to close tightly. Males can be distinguished from females by their concave plastron (for mounting the female during mating), while that of the female is flat. Males have red eyes, females brown. They inhabit forests and forest edges, and spend their days foraging for berries, fungi, and a variety of invertebrates (snails, slugs, earthworms, insects).
In hot, dry weather the box turtles may go into seclusion, but they generally try to stay around low, damp places near water. They swim awkwardly and don't do it often, preferring instead to enter shallow water only to drink or to soak. On rainy days, however, they may wander all over the landscape, and that is often when we see them.
In June the female will lay up to two clutches of 3-8 ellipsoidal eggs on land, generally burying them or covering them with leaves. The young will hatch in about 90 days. The turtles will hibernate in late October or early November by burrowing in loose soil below the frost line or on pond bottoms. These turtles are known to be long-lived, and ages of 30 to 40 years are common. Rarely, they have even been known to reach the century mark.
What can we do if we see a box turtle crossing the road? Since they are so slow-moving, these turtles are especially vulnerable to automobiles. Many are killed this way each year. Instead of hurrying along its way, a box turtle will close up tightly and wait for the car to pass, which only increases its chances of being hit. We can assist them at these times by stopping and moving them to one side of the road. Use good judgment and consider rescuing it only if you can safely pull off onto the shoulder and not be endangered yourself. (Using emergency flashers is a good idea.) Be sure to wash your hands with hot water and soap or disinfectant wipes as soon as possible so as not to risk contracting salmonella, a disease commonly carried by turtles that is transferrable to humans. These turtles are decreasing in numbers in Illinois due to automobiles, disease, and loss of habitat, but also because many are taken for pets or sold to pet stores. To place it safely in the grass at the side of the road would help ensure that it may live to reproduce and help perpetuate its species. It would be a kindness.
For personal enjoyment, a person may collect nonlisted Illinois species of reptiles, but none may be sold or traded. If released, they must be returned to the place where they were captured. Before contemplating such a move, one should consult the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and local animal control offices for details. In spite of my own family's experience in adopting one from the wild years ago, as a naturalist now, I do not advocate this practice. Box turtles need to remain in their natural habitats in order to mate, lay their eggs and replace old animals with young, vital individuals in order for this species to thrive again.
So whatever happened to Wendell? Over the years we adopted a small, injured female that a kind lady had rescued and dropped off for treatment at a local veterinary hospital. Hit on a country road, she was now three-legged. Releasing her back to the wild was not an option, so we were asked to take her in as a companion to Wendell. My daughters named her Cecelia, after the caring lady who rescued her but whom we never met. Cecelia was very timid and would hide until we left the room before coming out to feed. As the girls grew older, high school and college activities consumed their lives, and the decision was made to find a new home for Wendell and Cecelia. The Douglas-Hart Nature Center seemed like the perfect place, and they agreed.
I recently called to check on the welfare of our old turtle friends and spoke with Penny, the employee who cares for them. She assured me that the two turtles were doing well, and that one of the environmental educators often visits various schools, taking along several of the center inhabitants, including Wendell. She said he never seems to mind, as long as he gets a big, juicy worm when he returns. We had him for eight or nine years and gave him to the center about nine or ten years ago. We figured that he must be in his twenties by now, possibly older.
Be sure to visit the nature center and look for the box turtle enclosure. It won't be hard to pick him out. I visited the center this week and looked in on them. They've got a great home, and they're doing fine. There are four box turtles now, but there was no mistaking Wendell. Head held high, neck outstretched, his eyes looked directly at me in anticipation of his next meal.
Some things never change.