8 Tips to Protect Baby Turtles in Your Yard

Last June, Ellen Lambeth and Greg Hudson, fellow staffers here at National Wildlife Federation who work on Ranger Rick magazine, had a pretty awesome wildlife sighting.

While Ellen was heading to the compost bin at the back of NWF’s headquarters landscape to deposit food scraps and coffee grounds, she spotted a female eastern box turtle. Seeing box turtles isn’t all that uncommon here since the property is a Certified Wildlife Habitat and also abuts a large regional park complete with hundreds of acres of woodland, the preferred habitat for this species.

It was WHAT the turtle was doing that made the sighting rare and fascinating; she was digging a nest to lay her eggs!

Here is Ellen’s report on the encounter:

While dropping off my compost this morning, I came across this sweet, good-sized box turtle:

Box turtle nesting 1
Female box turtle scoping out potential nesting spots. Photo by Greg Hudson
Box turtle nesting 2
Female box turtle laying eggs at NWF headquarters. Photo by Greg Hudson

And what was she doing?  Digging a nest for her eggs!  Just like a sea turtle, she paddled each hind leg in turn down the hole, bringing up a bit of dirt with each scoop.

I was hoping to see some eggs drop in but decided she needed her privacy and a restored sense of security. By the time I returned to check, she had carefully covered the hole and disappeared back into the woods. Her task had been done—no child-rearing hassles for her!

Box turtle nest site. Photo by Greg Hudson.
Box turtle nest site. Photo by Greg Hudson.

I’m posting this now because very soon, those baby turtles will be hatching and emerging out into the landscape. This is a natural event that will be happening across the country for many turtle species. August is baby turtle season!

Ellen noted that the spot the box turtle chose to dig her nest was in an exposed area not too far from the dumpsters in our parking lot, which is regularly patrolled by raccoons, skunks, and opossums looking for a free meal. Since many turtle nests are predated by such generalist mammalian predators, she was worried the eggs wouldn’t stand a chance. Recognizing that predators need to eat too and that we try not to interfere in nature, but also that box turtles are on the decline due to habitat loss, while raccoons, skunks, and opossums aren’t, it was decided that helping out in this instance would be okay.

So Ellen contacted National Wildlife Federation’s building manager Steve Johnsen, and together they came up with a solution: they placed a wire basket over top of the nest area and weighted it down with a heavy rock. This basket cage should keep foraging mammals from being able to dig into the nest and also protect the babies as they emerge.  The wire basket bars are wide enough apart that tiny hatchling box turtles will easily be able to fit between them.  After that, they are on their own, just as they otherwise would be in nature. Female turtles do not care for their young, which are fully equipped to hunt and forage for themselves.

Here’s the nest-protector basket cage:

Turtle nest protector cage. Photo by David Mizejewski.
Turtle nest protector cage. Photo by David Mizejewski.

Saving baby turtles, all in a day’s work for us here at National Wildlife Federation!

Here are eight tips for helping out turtle hatchlings in and around your own yard:

  1. Baby turtles make easy prey for a whole variety of predators from raccoons and skunks to crows and even bullfrogs. For terrestrial species such as box turtles, wood turtles, gopher tortoises and desert tortoises, make sure your garden has plenty of vegetation to give baby turtles adequate cover.
  2. Build a brush pile as hiding places both for adult and hatchling turtles.
  3. Sink a shallow dish into the garden soil as a place where young turtles can soak and get a quick drink. A birdbath placed directly on the ground, or even the drainage dish from a flower pot work great. Just make sure the sides aren’t too vertical or turtles can climb in and not out. Adding some pebbles to create a “shallow end” or a piece of tree bark to act as an exit platform are good ideas.
  4. If you’re lucky enough to live adjacent to a pond, lake, river or other wetland inhabited by aquatic turtle species such as painted, spotted, snapping, mud, musk, map, yellow-bellied and red-bellied turtles, the various slider, softshell and cooter species, or even the diamondback terrapin that lives in brackish coastal wetlands, be sure to provide plenty of aquatic vegetation in and around the water to give young of these species hiding places.
  5. If you live in coastal areas where sea turtles nest, be sure to keep your lights off at night during hatching season. The lights disorient baby sea turtles and cause them to head inland instead of out into the ocean.
  6. Keep your cat indoors.  The shell of a baby turtle is no match for the sharp teeth of a domestic cat.
  7. Look before you mow! Do a quick scan of your lawn area before starting the engine to look for baby (or adult) turtles and other small wildlife that cannot outrun your mower. The extra effort will be worth it to avoid a wildlife disaster under the mower blades.
  8. Don’t use pesticides. These might hurt baby turtles directly, or kill off the insects and other invertebrates that make up a large portion of the diet of many species when they are hatchlings.

Be a Wildlife Gardener

Want to make the most out of gardening, and help wildlife? Become a wildlife gardener with the National Wildlife Federation. It’s free and you’ll get great wildlife gardening tips and learn how to certify your yard as an official habitat.

Learn more!