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Turtle Nesting Box

How to build a turtle nesting box

All gravid turtles need a nesting site. In fact, the lack of nesting sites is the main reason why most gravid turtles fail to lay eggs.

Failure to properly lay eggs is called dystocia and this can lead to egg yolk peritonitis, which is fatal when left untreated. As such building a nesting box is important.

All adult females produce eggs, even when there are no males. These eggs are infertile but still need to be laid. A nesting box encourages the turtle to lay the eggs she is carrying.

This box generally contains a slightly moist substrate that emulates the chelonian’s natural nesting site. If you are wondering how to build a turtle nesting box, then keep on reading.

Midland painted Turtle digging a nesting site
Midland painted Turtle digging a nesting site

Building a nesting box / site

Before you start, there are a few materials to gather. These include a box. This box should be large, about 20 gallons. If the box comes with a lid, then that’s a plus. Either way, you’ll need a lid for the box.

For boxes that don’t come with a lid, you can make a lid out of cardboard or even use a towel.  You also need substrate for the box.

There are a lot of options out there when it comes to substrates you can use premium topsoil or a mix of sand and peat moss. Alternatively, a mix of 1 part peat moss, 1 part vermiculite, and 1 part sphagnum moss also works.

A mix of peat moss and coco coir also works.

Regardless of the substrate you use, it shouldn’t contain rocks, branches, and any other hard objects.

Below are the materials you will need to build a nesting box.

Materials needed

  • Rubbermaid Storage Box
  • Desert Sand Soil Cover
  • Sphagnum Peat Moss
  • A lid (this is only needed if your box doesn’t come with a lid, you can use a cardboard or a towel)
  • A spray bottle

Steps

1. Mix the substrate

Mix the sand with the peat moss. A 50-50 mix should do it.

2. Add mix to container

Next, pour the mix into the plastic container of your choice. Rubbermaid containers work very well in this situation. The container should be about 20 gallons in capacity. The substrate should be about 5 inches in depth. This should give the turtle enough room to dig.

3. Mist the substrate

Next, you have to lightly mist the substrate. This is to create a humid environment for the turtle to lay eggs. The substrate needs to be slightly damp but not dripping wet. That’s it. You have completed your nesting box.

4. Put the turtle in the box

Now, you need to transfer the gravid turtle into the nesting box so it can lay the eggs.

Place the turtle in the box and cover the box with the lid, about three-fourths of the way. The darkness will make the turtle feel safe and secure. Safe enough to lay her eggs.

5. Wait

Keep the turtle in there for about an hour then move her back to her enclosure. Do not disturb the turtle as she tries to lay the eggs.

6. Try again

Repeat steps 4 to 6 about twice or three times a day.

7. Check soil

Check the soil regularly, and mist it if it feels dry to touch.

Key Points

Don’t leave the turtle in there for more than 2 hours at a time. If the turtle is unable to lay her eggs, just try again another time.

Creating a nesting site within an enclosure

If the turtle’s enclosure is large enough, you need not create a nesting box separate from the enclosure. You can create a nesting area within the enclosure. 

If the enclosure has several female turtles, you would need to create several nesting areas within the enclosure.  With this setup, you don’t need to move the turtle to the nesting box, the turtle can easily access the nesting site by herself. 

This type of setup also has its disadvantages. One of which is, the enclosure, needs to be big, preferably an outdoor enclosure. This won’t work in a small enclosure. 

Materials needed

  • A large hide box
  • Rocks and logs
  • Topsoil
  • Sand

Steps 

1. Pick a spot

Choose the area where you want to create a nesting spot.

2. Mix the soil

Mix the topsoil and sand in a ratio of 3:2.

3. Mist the substrate

Gently mist the substrate and pour it onto the nesting site. The substrate should have a depth of 6 inches to 12 inches.

4. Add rocks

Place some rocks and logs onto the substrate. This will help make the turtles feel safe.

5. Add a hide

Place a hide box in the nesting site atop the substrate. Turtles are more likely to lay eggs when they feel hidden.

Key Points

Turtles generally lay several clutches of eggs over a few weeks.

Why does a gravid turtle need a nesting box? 

A nesting box is just a box where a gravid turtle can lay eggs. This box is designed to stimulate a natural nesting site. In nature, turtles choose a place close to their natural habitat for nesting. This site usually has loose soil which is generally damp.

When kept in an enclosure, gravid turtles will refuse to nest unless you create a nesting site for them. She may lay a few eggs in the aquarium, but usually, she would refuse to lay all the eggs. This situation is called egg binding and can lead to severe and serious complications.

The eggs can break while inside her. This will lead to serious health issues. Alternatively, the egg can calcify inside her. If this happens, a surgical procedure will be needed to remove the eggs.

How do you know when to build a nesting box? 

You need to build a nesting box when the turtle is ready to lay eggs. You will need to know the nesting habits of your turtles. Different species have different nesting habits.

For North American turtles such as sliders, map turtles, cooters, and box turtles (Terrapene), nesting usually occurs from late spring and early summer. You should think about building a nesting box around this time.

You have to also watch out for signs that show that the turtle is gravid. Here are some of the signs that show that your turtle is gravid.

– Expect the turtle to be restless. A gravid turtle will try to escape the enclosure. This is because she needs to find a suitable nesting site. She may try to climb out, dig through the bottom, and even swim through the glass. The turtle will usually start wandering and paddling frantically about the enclosure.

– Expect the turtle to lose appetite. When a turtle is gravid, she may lose appetite and even stop eating. Also, some turtles may start eating more when they are gravid. Watch out for both signs. 
The basking habits of the turtle may also change. 
– The turtle will start digging with the hind legs. Turtles use their hind legs to dig holes for the eggs they lay. When the female turtle is gravid, she will try digging available substrate with the hind legs.

What to do if you think your turtle is gravid?

Of course, you’ll need to create a nesting site. However, you also need to check other things in the enclosure. The behavior change may be due to other reasons apart from gravidity.

If the turtle shows the signs described above first check the conditions within the enclosure. Conditions such as bad lighting, inappropriate temperatures, and poor water quality can cause the turtle to start behaving differently. Correct issues with the enclosure.

While you can palpate the turtle and tell if she’s carrying eggs or not, I recommend that you leave this inspection to an experienced turtle breeder or a veterinarian. Rough inspection can lead to egg breakage, which can lead to yolk peritonitis which is a serious condition.

Palpation is done by inspecting the areas around the hind legs (between the carapace and the plastron for eggs).

An x-ray can also be done to find out if the turtle is gravid or not. If the turtle is gravid, with an x-ray the vet can determine the number of eggs the female is carrying and the presence of any problematic eggs.

Once you are sure that the turtle is gravid, you can start preparing for the arrival of the eggs.

Conclusion

Building a nesting box may seem complicated but really, it’s not. All you need is a large box, a lid for the box, and a substrate. You also need to mist the substrate lightly. Place the turtle in the close and cover it about 75% of the way.

The turtle should not be in there for more than two hours. Place the turtle in the box about thrice a day, at different times – namely morning, afternoon, and evening.

This nesting box works well and if the turtle is healthy, it should use the box to lay her eggs. If you have an adult female turtle, then you need to create a nesting site for her regardless of whether she is breeding or not.

Nesting season is generally between May and August. Watch the turtle closely for signs that she is gravid and create a nesting site accordingly.

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