I live in a small, quiet suburban town in New Jersey called Atlantic Highlands. It is situated along the shores of Sandy Hook Bay and found downstream from the hustle and bustle of lower Manhattan in New York City.
It was a hot, sunny Sunday afternoon with a mild breeze a few weeks ago that I uncovered a bombshell in this quiet community. I was outside clearing away the invasive Oriental Bittersweet from my backyard. With a pair of clippers in my hands, I was cutting back the bittersweet in a wooded corner of my property under a few Sassafras trees and near several large Mountain Laurel bushes when I spotted something strange. It was a small critter with a yellow-orange and tan shell on the ground. What the heck was this?
Looking closely, it turned out not to be one but two critters. Less than 10 feet away from me were a pair of Eastern Box Turtles mating. They were getting intimate on top of a pile of decaying leaves. What a shocker! I had to look twice to make sure I was seeing this scene correctly.
While a person's first reaction might be to snicker and sneer at the thought of a male and female Box Turtle getting it on in an individual's backyard, this was in fact a big deal to me. I mean come on, here was a real act of wild nature going on not far from my house. The ultimate celebration of life in the middle of suburbia!
I remember as a kid growing up near Barnegat Bay in South Jersey and finding quite a few Box Turtles. During the summer, I would notice them in nearby woodlands feeding on berries. Inevitably, one or two would find their way near my home. My parents would always enjoy the sight of seeing Box Turtles, but would never let me keep one as a pet. It was always best to keep wild animals wild I was told.
Many years later that good advice comes back to me. Stay back and do not touch the turtles. Let them be.
The sight of a breeding pair of Box Turtles is even more important today when you take into account that this radiant reptile is listed as a "species of special concern" by the NJ State Endangered and Nongame Species Program. Though not endangered, wildlife biologists consider the Box Turtle likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future. Despite the fact that Box Turtles are well known, their population is sadly declining throughout New Jersey.
The reasons for a diminishing Box Turtle population are many. First and foremost, though, is habitat destruction. Many roads now slice through once dense forested land. The demise of large tracts of woodlands due to over-development and poor planning has caused many Box Turtles to become isolated from a variety of food sources and potential mates.
According to the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, Box Turtles have very small home rangers. Their homeland is around 250 square yards or less. If a Box Turtle is removed from their territory and placed in an unfamiliar site, they may die while trying to find their way back home. Numerous Box Turtles die every year trying to cross roads in search of food, a mate, or trying to get back home. Box Turtles are diurnal, so they are most active during daylight hours when vehicle traffic is high.
Box Turtles are also highly sought after as pets. Lots of people seek out wild Box Turtles and illegally collect them for use as a pet or sell them for profit to local pet stores.
Even though Box Turtles can live up to 20 years in the wild, this native reptile is quickly becoming scarce primarily because these threats have put an enormous amount of stress on the species. What's more, the turtles are slow to reproduce because of the many obstacles they face in the wild. Box Turtles become sexual active at four to five years of age. The mating season begins in the spring and continues throughout summer to October, the time of year when many people are most active outdoors as well.
No doubt then, seeing a pair of boxies mating is my backyard was about the coolest thing I'd ever set my eyes on near my house. Despite all the obstacles, the need to breed was strong in this pair.
If all goes well, the female will deposit eggs in a hole by the end of the month. Eggs are laid in June and July. Females lay between 2 to 7 eggs in loose or sandy soil and sometimes even in lawns. Most hatching occurs in September. The next generation of Box Turtles will have gotten their start here in my backyard, not far the shores of Sandy Hook Bay, and located downstream from New York City.
For all its beauty and peacefulness, Box Turtles are no match for the destructive powers of humans. Here are some quick and easy ways you can help protect the Eastern Box Turtle from becoming endangered:
- Never remove a turtle from the wild.
- Never relocate a turtle in the wild, unless you see one trying to cross a road. Help a turtle cross a road only if you can do so safely, and be sure to point it in the same direction that it was headed.
- Never return a pet turtle or rescued turtle to the wild, as they often contain viruses or bacteria that can do damage to a wild turtle population.
- Educate friends and family about the importance of observing – but not touching, disturbing or collecting – turtles in the wild.
For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://natureontheedgenyc.blogspot.com/