Backyard Turtles
Tour Twelve
Dangers in the Spring

     Consider this a rough draft of this tour. I will refine it and add pictures as I take them this spring. For this writing I just want to get my message out. Your feedback is also very important and useful.

     I write about my experiences with turtles; I have over fifty years of caring for pet turtles. I do not like to repeat book learned information or give you technical information.  I also learn from the stories you share with me. This tour is about such experiences. And it will help if you read Tour 11 Hibernation of Pet Turtles on the Raising Baby Turtles page before you go on.

     It is my experience that the most dangerous time of the year for my turtles is in the spring when they are in transition from hibernation to normal activity. Hibernation is in itself a highly controversial term and greatly misunderstood by many turtle owners. I use the term "hibernation" to refer to the state which turtles enter to physically get through cold temperatures. It is a state of much lower body activities that allow them to go months without respiration under water and without eating. It is dependent on temperature and the turtles have no way of not going into this state when temperatures drop and stay cold. Turtles do not hibernate in warm houses.

     There are differences between hibernation under water and hibernation on land. Water turtles can hibernate out of water and many land turtles like box turtles can hibernate under water. In the fall when I gather my water turtles to take them to the basement to hibernate, I must dig through the leaf pile in search of water turtles. Then the turtle pond is drained for the winter. And now that we have a muddy bog that has water in it all winter, I must dig though it for water turtles. I often find box turtles dug in among the plant roots under water in the bog. I move them to the leaf pile. The bog is too shallow and will freeze solid to the rubber liner.

     One major difference between box turtles and most other turtles is the ability of box turtles to close their shells tightly. Turtles that cannot close their shells are volnerable to the attack of rodents while hibernating out of water. A turtle in a deep state of hibernation is completely defenseless against a rodent chewing on its exposed legs. It has happen to one of my turtles which is the reason I now only allow my box turtles to hibernate in the leaf pile.

     We will discuss water turtles and land turtles separately or more precisely the risks of emerging from hibernation in water and out of water.

Hibernation on Land:

     This year I had two box turtles emerge on March 1st. One was on top of the leaf pile and the other was far from the leaf pile. The same day Emily, our large Florida red-bellied turtle who spends the winters in our house, became very restless. She had stopped eating and wanted out of the utility sink she wanted in all winter. It is common for the turtles spending the winter inside to change their activity levels about the beginning of March but it is very very early for the turtles hibernating outside. We had snow two days later.

     Emily's story is very interesting but too long for this tour so it will be told in Tour 13: Emily in the Spring.

     Our spring weather can very from very cold to very mild but March is too early for turtles. April is warmer but there can still be snow and there will be many nights below freezing. May is the big transition month when the turtles return to normal summer activity. So while some box turtles emerge from hibernation as early as March, I have also seen some not emerge until June.

     Turtles hibernating on land do not dig below the frost line as so commonly written. Our frost line can be three feet deep during very cold winters. It is not uncommon for me to find where a turtle has hibernated under just an inch or two of material. One year I placed the sensor of on indoor outdoor thermometer at the bottom of our leaf pile and monitored the temperature all winter. Most of the winter the temperature at the bottom of the leaf pile was about at freezing or just above. Snow cover also helps keep the cold from penetrating deeper into the soil.

     The big leaf pile I build for my turtles is as much for my peace-of-mind as it is for the turtles. They do like the leaves and start using the leaf pile as soon as I begin making it in late summer. The depth of my leaf pile is much greater than would occur naturally. I simply want to be generous in my preparations for them. I also allow the leaves that fall into the turtle pen to accumulate where they fall and add more around some plants where I think some turtles may end up spending the winter.

     The leaves and plant material serve to moderate changes in the soil temperature and hold in moisture. These materials do not keep the turtles warm! The turtles need to remain at near constant cold temperatures on warm days so that they remain in hibernation. The other fact that I have learned through observation is that the turtles hibernating on land are wet all winter. They are not just very moist; they are wet and in the mud. Even under the leaf pile they dig deep enough into the soil to cover their shell openings. And I never see them drink for many days after emerging from hibernation.

     I always caution people about building a better mouse trap for their turtles to hibernate in. Don't trap the turtles under a box or the like. Provide material like leaves and let the turtles decide how to use it. Leave their location exposed to the rain and snow and air.

     It is my observation that the process of land turtles emerging from hibernation is much slower than for water turtles and much more dangerous. They often emerge covered in mud especially their eye lids. They do not warm up as fast and may sit for days at a time. Some are just too weak to get going again. Others may get off to a fast start but run out of energy because it will be a month or two before it is warm enough for them to eat and digest food. And the males emerge ready to mate. Others may also be dehydrated but not drink.

     It is common for turtles in the leaf pile to come to the top of the pile and sit. They are probably still in a state of hibernation. They expose themselves to the sun and warm slowly. Some leave the pile and return at night.

     I find that it is the time between emergence from hibernation and the time they start eating again that is the most dangerous for land turtles. Most turtles do live through hibernation. Some that die die soon after emerging. Those that die are usually a surprise to me because one would think that they have made it when they emerge.

     I watch for my turtles to emerge on warm days. I record the day I see each turtle for the first time each spring. This helps me to know who normally comes out early and who hibernates longer. If they look okay I leave them alone. I then check on them before dark to make sure they take cover again. If they have not dug back in and a cold night is expected, I put them under the leaves in the leaf pile. We do have the advantage of weather predictions.

     It is not uncommon for box turtles to have puffy eye lids while they are sleeping. If I am concerned with the look of their eye lids, I rinse them off with water. But a box turtle in a state of hibernation will usually not open its eyes. I suggest that you not jump to conclusions about it's condition when you see a turtle that just emerged from hibernation and has puffy eye lids.

     I do not like to see very active box turtles very early in spring. They usually do not eat here until May. The males will still chase the females and try to mate. If it is a cold wet spring, they can run out of energy and die. It is always a debate whether to take a turtle inside for a time or leave them outside. I can only say that probably more turtles die from weakness in spring than die from weakness during hibernation.

Hibernation in Water:

     In Tour 11 Hibernation of Pet Turtles I show how my water turtles hibernate in our basement in the "ark" which is a rubber lined box filled with about ten inches of water. That part of the basement is unheated and also includes my wood working equipment. The temperature is in the mid 50's F when I take the turtles in and drops to as low as 40 degrees F. By chance I built a ramp divider into the box so that I would have a portion to fill with leaves that is not water filled. There is room on top of the divider for the turtles to sit. The box  is located below a small basement window so the turtles get natural light.

     Usually when I open the door to that part of the basement during daylight hours, I hear a splash as turtles slide down the ramp into the water. Many turtles often sit on the divider and some move in and out of the leaves. Of course leaves stick to wet turtles and are dragged into the water. These turtles look just about the same as they do during summer until the temperature drops to the low 40's F. Even then they move about some. And they have to put up with me running power tools just a few feet away. That goes with being domesticated.

     I consider these turtles as in a state of hibernation even though they look perfectly normal and active. They can stay under water but also breath air easily. I do not feed them at all while they are in the basement. We are located near Allentown, PA and have hard winters. The turtles are taken to the basement in October before we get a hard freeze and remain there until April. In April when I think we will not have any more hard freezes, I fill the pond and take them outside to enjoy sunshine again.

     It is not uncommon to see turtles swimming around under ice. I have seen painted turtles swimming under the ice at the shallow ends of lakes. They absorb their oxygen from the water directly. I have also seen many painted turtles basking on cold sunny winter days when there was no ice cover. And I have had my turtles trapped under thin ice on the pond after I put them out in spring with no harm done. Hibernation does not mean "dead-to-the-world asleep".

     In April on a mid sunny day, I fill the pond and take my water turtles out and sit them by the pond in the sun. Usually they sit for a few minutes and then enter the water. Within a few hours most of the water turtles move to the bog. They really seem to enjoy the mud and leaves that have accumulated in the bog. And they bask on the bog plants. They many also pick at a few pellets within days of going outside.

     We have complete success with this routine. However, I get email from turtle owners who watch their water turtles do just fine all winter in their fish ponds only to have them die in the spring. I have a friend in the UK who keeps turtles and has had this problem too. He believes that the water turtles are so weak in spring that they can not swim to the surface to breath air. He has learned that while not breathing air toxins build up in their blood and weaken them. They must breath air to clear their blood of these toxins. This would explain why so many water turtles die in spring in fish ponds with vertical sides. 

     So it would appear that the critical time in the spring for water turtles is when they feel the need to surface and breath air. They probably have no air in their lungs at this time to give them buoyancy. They are weak. They may need to walk or craw to the surface rather than swim to the surface. Once they breath air directly their blood clears and they regain strength.

     I suggest that if you have water turtles in a fish pond with vertical sides that you lift them out occasionally in late winter and early spring until you see that they can swim normally to the surface on their own. Simply lift them out with a net and place them on a basking spot where they can reenter the water when they wish to. Of course this would apply to any other turtles spending the winter in water too.

Taking a Turtle out of Hibernation:

     There are times when it may be necessary to take a turtle out of hibernation. To do this I simply take the turtle into the house and allow it to warm to room temperature. I do not use any added heat source like a heat lamp or warm water. I don't want to shock the turtle. After about a day it should be recovered. I will then place it in water to drink, water at room temperature. At the same time I will wash it with water. Then it will go into a vivarium or water and offered food. It may not eat for some time. At this time I also treat any wounds or infections. I will then keep it inside until warmer weather.

More info:

     Basically I leave our leaf pile decompose over summer. If it was a very big pile, I may remove some leaves beginning about the beginning of May. Yes I am always anxious to see all my turtles emerge and I know the bottom of the leaf pile remains very cold. But I remove leaves slowly and allow the pile to warm slowly. We have many day lilies planted in the turtle pen. I find that most of the box turtles move out of the leaf pile when the lilies are about 10" high. I reason that this growth is a measure of how much warmth we have had to that time.

     My water turtles are not a worry after they are outside. The water in the pond and bog warm much quicker than the soil and hold warmth longer at night. The water turtles also bask more and begin eating much sooner than the land turtles. This is good because the painted turtles start nesting in late May.

Emily, our Florida Red-bellied Turtle:

     Emily is a story all her own. When I take the water turtles to the basement to hibernate, she comes in the house for the winter. She prefers to spend the winter in a utility sink in the laundry. I like her to spend one night a week on the floor to dry off since she can not get out of the water when in the sink. She always returns to the floor below the sink and wants back in it. She eats well all winter.

     This year she stopped eating about the end of February. Then on March 1st she insisted on getting out of the sink. This was the same day I saw two box turtles emerge outside. She stayed near the sink but did not want in it. She will ultimately tell me the day she wants to go outside. She will not be happy outside if she is not ready. Usually I take her out the same day I take the other water turtles outside. But Emily will proceed to the leaf pile and dig in for four to six weeks. The leaves are cold but she is not so cold as to enter a state of hibernation.

     If Emily does not emerge form the leaf pile by a time I think she should, I uncover her and knock on her shell like knocking on a door. Within a hour or two she will then make her way to the pond and join her friends whom I think miss her. They are always glad to see her.

     I will take pictures this spring and add to this tour. Let me know if you have questions.

 New 3/9/2016

Return to Backyard Turtles

Raising Baby Turtles

Return to Main Page