Backyard Journal: Bird vs. Reptile


Two of our backyard turtles (Pickle, left, and Shelby) in happier days. Shelby went missing after visit by local scrub jay.

Earlier this week, I posted what might well be construed as a fond reflection on our local scrub jays. They’re interesting, they’re beautiful, yadda yadda yadda.

Now listen to what the little bastards have done.

A few weeks ago, Kate the Science Teacher brought home three little turtles, red-eared sliders, given to her by a student who was moving away. Turtles–I remember having some as pets when we were kids, how one tragically escaped our house and fell victim to ants.

But these little reptiles (Trachemys scripta elegants) are actually really fun to watch insofar as they are clearly observant and social and react to what’s going on around them. Kate read up a little on their habits and and how to keep them and we instituted some improvements in the condition of their captivity. We gave them names–Pickle, Shelby, and Serena. One of the things Kate discovered was that they like to sun themselves and that basking is an important way for them to get their needed dose of Vitamin D (it helps build strong shells). So we have taken to carrying the turtles’ “tank” (a 7.5-gallon translucent blue plastic filing box) out back to let them soak up some rays.

That’s what I did yesterday morning. I could see from the kitchen that all three turtles, each just a few inches in diameter, had pulled themselves up onto the flagstone at the center of their container.

Then I went away. When I came back, I heard one of the local jays squawking. I looked out back, and saw it fumbling around with something on the back part of our patio. Huh, I thought. Then I went back to whatever I’d been doing. Getting ready to go to my afternoon shift at the Public Radio Station, I went out to bring the turtles back inside. Weird–I could only see two of them. I looked again. Yes, only two.

Then I noticed the cuttlebone (a calcium supplement) from the tank had been pulled out and pecked. Who or what had done that? My conclusion was that it was the scrub jay I’d seen hopping around before, and that that bird or accomplices unknown had managed to spear the missing turtle and make a meal of it.

Conclusion: I am saddened and chagrined to report we’ve got charming predators in our midst, and we’ll need to screen the top of that tank when we put it out back again.


Red-eared slider as rendered by 19th century artist Karl Bodmer.