Backyard Turtles
Tour Four
Protecting Turtle Nests

     Each year this subject comes up many times and each year we put off writing this tour. We only like to present first hand information on TurtleTails.com. We do not have much experience protecting turtle nests because we recover and incubate our turtle eggs when we see eggs being laid or discover nests. But we must cover this subject for the many readers who seek our help.

     For this tour we will assume that we are discussing the nests of pet turtles or nests of wild turtles in backyards, driveways, gardens, lawns, play areas, or other private property. If you are protecting the nests of wild turtles in public areas, we will assume you have the authority to do so. In most states people are prohibited from disturbing the nests of wild animals.

     There is good reason to protect turtle nests. It is widely reported that as many as ninety percent of all turtle nests are destroyed by predators, weather events and conditions, accidental disturbances, and other factors. We know that many eggs do not hatch and many babies do not live long. So any nest that is protected may have a positive impact on the survival of a new generation of local turtles.

     We have observed some of our pet turtles nesting in the same location each year. One turtle laid eggs three consecutive years in exactly the same place before moving less than twelve inches away in the fourth year. Some are very regular nesting in the same week of the year. It is no wander that predators find the nests so quickly.

     Most nests are discovered by smell and mostly at night. As the eggs are laid, a fluid coats the eggs. Some turtles like painted turtles urinate on their nests to make mud lumps over the nests called plugs. Some eggs break or leak. During hatching some fluid is also lost. Some eggs may spoil and give off an odor. So it is understandable that there is a scent or smell predators detect to locate nests.

     Some new nests are discovered by sight or the turtles are seen digging. We find some nests of our pet turtles by sight: we know what we are looking for and where and when to look. Some turtles dig test holes or begin digging and abandon the holes. These holes are not covered and are sure signs that there is probably a nest nearby. Most visual signs or clues are lost during heavy rains.

     We are not recommending or advocating that you protect turtle nests. That decision is probably already made when someone takes the time to do an internet search and finds TurtleTails.com. Then we are asked if a nest should be protected and how to protect it. If you want to see the eggs hatch, it is better to protect the nest. If you want to see the baby turtles, protect the nest. You are reading this tour to see how to protect a nest and not to answer if you should. Most people find it sad to discover that a nest they knew about was destroyed and the eggs eaten.

Take Immediate Action
     A turtle nest may be at greatest risk immediately after the eggs are laid. The turtle may have been seen nesting, there is a fresh scent, and there are visual clues. So soon after the turtle has left the nest, you can take action to protect it.

     Rain will erase most of the visual clues and reduce scent. You may find it impossible to locate the nest after a good rain. So if you want to do something quick and simple, sprinkle water over the nest soaking the area if you can. If you think you may come back later and do more to protect the nest, place a small marker on the nest before wetting it. You can use a coin like a golfer, the lid of a drink bottle, or small stones in a pattern you will recognize. Also expect to be a few inches off the mark.

     Here are a few quick short term solutions:

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     These solutions are intended to reduce the chances of a predator digging up the nest while you are preparing a better solution. Some methods block digging by all but the most determined animals. Some raise the noses off the ground to reduce or prevent the predators from detecting the scent. But these methods also trap the baby turtles. Other quick temporary solutions include placing objects made from wire over the nest like an oven shelf, a piece of wire closet shelving, a box trap, the top of a wire animal cage or a plastic egg crate. You want to allow air, the warmth of the sun, and water to reach the nest so don't cover it with an aquarium or clear plastic box.

     Pieces of wood, sticks, or stones can be used to raise the wire off the ground to prevent trapping baby turtles. Stakes can be used to hold down screens instead of bricks or stones. Quick stakes may include pieces of wood, tent stakes, big nails, long bolts, long lag screws, metal rods, plastic plant sticks, railroad spikes, pens, pencils, and old kitchen utensils. If you can stick it in the ground or drive it in the ground, it will help buy time.

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     Record the date the eggs were laid. Expect the eggs to take 60 to 120 days to hatch.

Decide what you want to accomplish
      After taking immediate steps to protect a nest temporarily, it is important to decide what your ultimate objective is. How you will protect the nest over the following months depends on your objective. Do you want the baby turtles to hatch and wander off on their own as they would normally do or do you want to constrain the baby turtles until you retrieve them. Constraining the babies does not automatically mean you want to make pets out of them. Baby turtles wandering around your driveway or high traffic area is also risky and you will feel real bad if you step on a baby turtle who's nest you protected. The differences in the way a nest is protected are minor; the difference is in your need to monitor the nest if the babies are constrained.

     In most cases in North America, turtles lay eggs in late spring and early summer and the eggs hatch in late summer or early fall. The baby turtles may leave the nest in fall or over winter in the nest and leave the following spring. Basically you want to protect the eggs in summer to give them time to hatch.

     If the baby turtles are to be constrained, we suggest investigating the nest before frost if the babies have not emerged by then. Leaving the nest protector on longer may pose a hazard to baby turtles that emerge later. If the nest is not investigated and the nest protector is left in place, stuff it with leaves or pines needles. Definitely remove the nest protector before the next spring nesting season.

     If the turtles will be allowed to wander away on their own, we suggest that you remove the nest protector before the first frost or four months after the eggs were laid. This would allow leaves or other plant material to collect naturally on the nest. The nest protector should definitely be removed before the following spring nesting season.

     A new nest should be monitored for attack by small critters and insects. If you have fire ants that find the nest, you will have to remove the eggs and incubate them if you are going to protect them. No nest protector will keep out small critters like mice and ants.

     A quick simple nest protector can be made with a scrap of hardware cloth, cage wire, or poultry wire attached to a wood frame. The size will depend on the scraps you have available; bigger is better. The bigger the wire openings, the higher the wire should be off the ground to prevent bird beaks from reaching the ground or baby turtles. If the frame is light in weight, stake the corners to prevent it from being pushed around. If you have railroad spikes or thick stakes, place the spikes or stakes on the outside of the box. The type shown below has no openings for the baby turtles to escape.

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     Here is another nest protector that has holes 1" high to allow baby turtles to escape. This nest protector was made from scraps of particle board and is much heavier and higher than the one above. Particle board is not very durable outside in the weather but it will do the job for several seasons. You can always build better nest protectors later.

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    If the cutouts for the escape holes are saved, they can be secured with screws to prevent escape. Thus one nest protector can serve as both types. If the cutouts are removed to allow escape, secure them to the side of the nest protector with the screws to save them for future use.

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    When we first wrote about building nest protectors, we showed how we built a nest protector entirely out of cage wire. We have since come to the conclusion after looking at our own pictures that wire sides may leave baby turtles vulnerable to birds picking at them through the wire. Even if birds like crows can not pull them through the wire, they could cause critical injuries. We now recommend that all nest protectors have solid sides 2" to 3" high at the bottom. You can see how we came to this conclusion by looking at the pictures below.

     Not all species hatchlings are the same size and not all hatchlings from the same nest are the same size. Our first test was to take two box turtles one year in age and see if they could escape our wire nest protector through a long opening. While they are larger than when they hatched, they are not larger than some hatchling turtles and are smaller than most hatchling tortoises. Take a look.

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     From this test we learned that 1" high openings may not be high enough. One of the babies seems to agree with this decision. Later we repeated this test with a one day old eastern box turtle.

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     From our simple experiments, we have concluded that we would build nest protectors with wood side frames. If we were purchasing materials for this purpose, we would purchase 1" by 6" boards for the sides and hardware cloth for the top. We would cut an opening on each side about 2" high and save the dropouts as shown in pictures 17 through 19 above.

     If you are placing nest protectors in public areas, we suggest you not draw attention to them with warning signs that might alarm some people. We suggested to one reader that dog poop would be more effective at protecting the nest protectors than signs. He responded that he liked this idea and that his dog has been practicing for years.

     Our nest protector shown in pictures 10 through 16 above got a field trial in a backyard in New Jersey. Being low, it was stepped one by the dog living there and the hardware cloth broken. It should have been higher and bigger for this environment. If you have or gain experience protecting turtle nests, send us an email and some pictures. We will be happy to add more information to this tour.

Revised 1/14/2010

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