EARTH LADY: ‘No place like home’ for box turtles, tornado victims

The male Eastern box turtle has bright red eyes. (Margaret Gratz)

The male Eastern box turtle has bright red eyes. (Margaret Gratz)

On the morning of April 28, 2014, the day of the tornado that wreaked havoc on Northeast Mississippi, the Earth Lady observed two Eastern box turtles engaged in courtship rituals. The sky was dark and ominous; the clouds were foreboding; and it was raining.

The turtles, however, seemed oblivious to the storm. Strange as it may seem, Eastern box turtles are most active in inclement weather and most sightings are made on rainy days. And, when it comes to romance, tempestuous weather is obviously not a deterrent.

Eastern box turtles, Terrapene Carolina, have been residents in the Earth Lady’s garden for more than three decades, but since these reptiles can live 100 years, in all probability, they were there first. These terrestrial turtles have great site fidelity and seldom stray more than 250 yards from the nests where they were born. If removed from their territory, they will make every effort to find their way home, even if it takes years.

Eastern box turtles are medium-sized turtles and are landlubbers. They have dark shells with many yellow and orange splotches. The coloration is variable, with some having a more colorful carapace or shell than others. The male turtle will have bright red eyes, while the female will have muddy yellow eyes.

Box turtles are omnivorous, which means they eat both plants and animals. Mature Eastern box turtles are primarily herbivorous, but will eat a juicy worm or slug on occasion.

Reproduction is a bit complicated for these turtles. First, it takes several years, sometimes a decade, before they reach sexual maturity. And since they are such homebodies or territorial, they will not travel long distances in search of a mate. Essentially, the female turtle only has eyes for the boy next door. Development, loss of habitat and road construction in some areas has made it difficult for these turtles to find a mate.

Now, back to the Earth Lady’s garden – exactly a month after watching the two Eastern box turtles spoon, a female turtle was observed laying eggs. Laboriously, she dug a hole, laid five eggs, and then methodically covered them up. It took all morning, and she had to be exhausted. Incubation will last about three months, but upon hatching, the young turtles will be very susceptible to predators. Chances of survival will be slim.

The Eastern box turtles in the Earth Lady’s garden are probably geriatric reptiles. They have survived the perils of nature, road construction, and they have seen storms come and go. It is the Earth Lady’s wish that turtles will still be on her hillside long after she is gone. For now, there are turtle eggs, and there is hope.

In “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy was whisked away by a tornado, but made it back from the Land of Oz to Kansas. In spite of the tornado of 2014, the storm victims have exhibited a remarkable spirit of renewal. For the fictional Dorothy, for turtles and for these resilient folks, there is indeed “no place like home.”

The Earth Lady by Margaret Gratz appears in the Daily Journal Home & Garden section once a month.

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