The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Out and About In The Mountains - Turtles

By Fran Stoddard © 1985

Issue: July, 1985


I miss box turtles. Last spring at our old farmhouse there were many. Or perhaps, I counted the same ones over. Branches near our house and swamps no doubt encouraged the large population. Unfortunately, there are fewer Box Turtles in the Summer than in Spring. We had two half-grown hound puppies, black and tan and brindle. The first turtle was just a shell, cleaned out so neat, I figured it had winter killed in the hard freeze we had that winter. Turtles sometimes don't hibernate down below the freeze-line when winters are especially severe.

More turtles showed up, and the dogs were eating them. We teased my husband that his hounds weren't going to be coon hounds, they were going to be, in fact were, turtle hounds.

All that spring I rescued turtles from the jaws of dogs. Box Turtles, I read, have very few natural enemies. Cars and forest fires being their worst enemies. These orange and brown, sometimes yellow and brown turtles can close all the doors oil their little houses and shut out their enemies. All except those hounds.

Each morning as I drove out of our driveway, I'd see turtles on our lawn and in the road. So I'd take them with me and drop them off down the road by a larger stream of water. Many mornings I was late. My explanation? I had to help some turtles.

There aren't many turtles in the higher mountain regions. Up in the Blue Ridge mountains, Box Turtles can be found up to 4,500 feet altitude in deciduous forest. That is in a forest of trees that shed their leaves in the fall as compared to fir trees.

Box Turtles lay their eggs in June and early July. They become more active in the summer months after rains. 'Turtles are reptiles. Their activities depend much on the temperature. When it gets cold they hibernate. When it gets hot they are relatively inactive until it rains.

Box turtles eat insects, worms, strawberries, mushrooms and other fruits. Box turtles are pretty, docile and make interesting pets. I like having them as well as toads, frogs, lizards and some harmless snakes around the yard. They help keep the insect population down.

Other turtles found around the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Smokey Mountains and other parts of the Southern Appalachians Mountain range are the Musk Turtles, Map Turtles, Eastern Painted Turtles, Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle and the Common Snapping Turtle.

I love to see the painted turtles all in a line on a partially submerged log in a pond, sunning themselves. If you approach too close, they slide into the water, one at a time like synchronized water ballerinas.

The Snapping Turtle has always been my favorite. When I was just a kid and we lived near a pond, I spent many summer days collecting snakes, turtles, frogs and salamanders and lots of other things. Whenever I had a question I wrote to Marlin Perkins (Wild Kingdom, now on TV). He would write to me personally with answers. I remember once asking him how to pick up a snapping turtle without getting bit by those enormous jaws, and without hurting the turtle. He said that Snapping Turtles were among his favorites too. That to pick them up, just grab them by the tail and hold them out away from your body. So I did and have been catching them that way ever since.

Years later, we moved onto a lot near my homestead and found out it was in the path of egg laying turtles. One year a large female laid and buried her eggs on a sandy mound facing south. That September, if my memory serves me right, my children found the eggs and took them to school. One afternoon just before school was dismissed, the eggs started to hatch. All the school buses were delayed so the children could watch this seldom observed event. Many kids went home with baby snappers!

Turtles often outlive people. They are good neighbors, so be Good to them.