This pet is a box with a head and four legs

Gordon eats, soaks, tunnels, and basks. He also sleeps for six months a year.

Shhhh,... they're brumating.

Tucked into the coldest corner of the lower level of my house every winter is a storage bin filled with the sandy soil of my rural county in central Wisconsin.

Each week in late winter I tiptoe to the bin, which is covered with an old weighted-down screen. I push my finger into the dirt, and if it feels dry, I fill the sprinkling can and moisten the soil.

No, I'm not waiting for seeds to sprout or bulbs to come to life. I'm making sure my box turtles have enough moisture during their long winter nap. That way, come spring, I'll see their spotted heads poke up through the dirt and know that a new season has begun.

If you've never fallen in love with a box turtle, you probably will have a hard time understanding the fascination, admiration, and, yes, love that turtle fanciers have for the animals in their care.

I never thought I'd become so attached to the round package that fell out of my dog's mouth five summers ago when I said, "Drop it."

But there it was, a box turtle that had wandered away from its owner, ended up in my yard, and needed my help to survive in a not-so-turtle-friendly environment.

Gordon, as I named him, and I have come a long way since that summer day. I've researched, read about, and adapted to caring for a turtle. And he has eaten, soaked, tunneled, and basked – while looking cute one minute and handsome the next.

I've rebuilt his outdoor summer enclosure to a roomy 8-by-12-foot area and am planning to have a small pond added this summer.

Last July we added another turtle to our family. Rather than objecting to another turtle sharing his space, Gordon has been social to Isabella, our newly adopted female box turtle (often called a boxie), who was flown to us from the Colorado Reptile Rescue Society.

Box turtles are land turtles, so while they need water, most of their lives are lived roaming prairies or woodlands, depending on the species, and doing turtle things.

They tunnel to cool off or to soak in moisture from the earth. They walk around searching for insects, worms, and tasty vegetation.

Box turtles are vulnerable to many dangers including encroaching development, cars and highways, and, most of all, people who take the gentle creatures away from their home territories.

They are called box turtles for a reason. Their bottom shell plates, or plastrons, are hinged so that the turtles can draw in their heads and legs and close up like, well, a box.

They are coldblooded, so their bodies are the same temperature as the air or whatever substance is around them (dirt, for instance). They survive on what, to warmblooded creatures such as humans, seems a scant amount of food.

Box turtles also dig into the ground and disappear for up to six months of the year without eating or drinking. Technically they don't hibernate in the sense that bears do. The more correct term, naturalists tell us, is torpor or "brumating."

Whatever the correct word, Gordon and now Isabella, too, slow down their eating toward the end of September, and by the end of October they have tunneled into the ground for their winter snooze.

Because the frost line goes too deep in this part of Wisconsin, this time is spent in that bin in my basement.

When they're there, I miss having them around. I miss their quizzical looks as they stretch their necks to stare up at me towering above them. I miss the beautiful patterns on their shells and the bright yellow and orange of their eyes.

I also miss that steady gaze when they spot a cricket or mealworm and then do that turtle sprint as they chase it down.

It's definitely odd having a pet you see only for half the year. During the months that Gordon and Isabella are awake, my refrigerator is filled with worms and bugs. And I can often be seen lurching around open fields catching grasshoppers.

But the best time with turtles is spring. As soon as April has taken over from March, I no longer tiptoe to the earth-filled bin. Like a kid trying to wake his parents on Christmas morning, I stomp over to the container, make a clatter with the sprinkling can, and look for signs of life.

It's not long before I'm rewarded. There's a crack in the soil one day. Then there's the definite loosened, mounded dirt. Finally, there's a tip of a nose, a glint of an eye, and my boxies are lively once again. I'm delighted to have my turtles return to me.

See Home Forum next Wednesday, June 28, for an article about snapping turtles.

Turtle books and websites

Here are some good books and websites where you can learn more about box turtles and other kinds of turtles:

"The Box Turtle Manual," by Philippe de Vosjoli and Roger Klingenberg.

"North American Box Turtles: A Natural History," by C. Kenneth Dodd. (Colorado Reptile Humane Society)

Box turtle facts

• The upper shell of a turtle is called the carapace (pronounced KAR-uh-pace). The lower shell is called the plastron (PLAS-trun).

• The sections of the upper shell are called scutes (skyoots).

• Male box turtles may have a wider tail than females do.

• In some species of box turtle, the males and females have different colored heads.

Did you know there's more than one kind of box turtle?

There are several different types of box turtles found throughout the US and around the world. They include:

1. Three-toed box turtle: Usually olive in color with three or four toes.

2. Ornate box turtle: It lives on land and has an ornately patterned shell. Males have bright red or orange eyes, while females have yellow-striped eyes.

3. Mexican box turtle: It's found throughout North America. The upper shell is domed and elongated.

4. Gulf Coast box turtle: Dark brown to black in color, males sometimes have white spots on their heads.

5. Florida box turtle: This turtle is one of four box turtle species found in Florida. It is easily distinguished by the bright yellow stripes on its shell.

6. Chinese three-striped box turtle: It lives in clear mountain streams and in subtropical to temperate, aquatic environments. It's found in China and Vietnam and likes to walk on land as well as swim.

[Editor's note: The original version mistakenly identified the red-eared slider as a box turtle.]


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