Do turtles make good pond pets?

Barley Straw Bag Turtle Island

Turtles add so much charm to a pond.  They are like tiny submarines, poking their little head’s up like periscopes, gliding thru your pond.  Adorable.  But do they make good pond pets?  And, what does it take to make them happy?

What kinds of turtles are best?  Turtles native to your area, such as eastern painted turtles here in the Mid Atlantic, are the easiest to manage.  Red Eared sliders are not native but can adapt well to pond conditions if you can keep them from escaping into the wild where they can pose a problem.  Both are readily available on Craigslist from pet owners tired of their aquarium pet.

If your pond can provide food, shelter, and security (their escape artist), your pond may be a great home for these cuties.

Food: Both species start out life as carnivores (meat eaters).  And, when small, are fast enough to catch your smaller fish.   Not good if you prize your fingerlings.  If your pond gets overpopulated with fingerlings each year, they will help you thin them out.  Unfortunately there is no guarantee they will only eat the ugly ones.  As they mature, they gradually rely more on vegetation for the bulk of their diet.  Not good if you prize your lilies and other soft aquatic plants.  Great, if your pond is over planted and can stand the grazing.  Sorry they don’t eat the obnoxious stuff like algae.  Some will learn to like your fish’s food and you will see them surfacing to feed with the fish.   So, they are pretty easy to feed if you can spare some of your plants and or fingerlings.

Shelter:  Turtles are fairly defenseless against predators such as cats, dogs, foxes, raccoons, and hawks.  Therefore they need to be

Turtles flock to floating islands

able to escape to a float or island out in the pond.  They will also use this refuge to sun themselves on sunny days when the water is still cold.  Floating Island Planters make a great refuge and sun deck for turtles. Large Bags of barley straw placed in the pond for algae management can also be used if some flotation material is placed inside to keep it from sinking.  One empty capped pint sized water bottle will do the trick.

Wintering:  In the winter, your turtle will swim to the bottom of the pond and hibernate there until better weather.  The pond needs to be at least 3 feet deep in temperate regions such as the Mid Atlantic to ensure a large enough pool of frost free water.   And, they like to have something in which to hide .  A 5 gallon bucket on its side with some sand or gravel inside works.  They really like to nestle into large planters if you have one big enough to accommodate them.  They will stay submerged as long as the air is as cold as the water.  However, if you get a few warm sunny winter days, you may see them up sunning themselves on their island, so make sure it is there through the winter.

Security:  They are escape artist.  They may not leave at first, but once they are comfortable that they can hide out in the pond, wanderlust takes over.  The first two painted turtles I got for my pond, a gift from a customer, delighted me with their antics for about a month and then disappeared.  Two weeks later I found one wandering around 100 feet from the pond up near the barn.  I picked him up and put him back in.  Two weeks after that, I found him, or the other identical turtle, wandering up by Bill’s shop.  Picked him up, put him back in.  Then they stayed put for the rest of the season and overwintered great.  The next spring when things warmed up, they disappeared, permanently.  Our pond is along a natural stream,  so I supposed they found it and headed downstream.  They are native to this area, so no harm done, but I miss them.  I caught a few more in the nearby lake that season and enjoyed their company for a few months before they too went back home.  So, they really need to be fenced.  It’s not practical to fence my pond, so I’ve just given up on having submariners in my pond.  If you live along a natural stream and are close to a lake or bog, you can try to lure wild turtles to your pond by placing Bagged Barley Straw or Floating island Planters as habitats in the pond.  This is probably the best way to go if possible, since they are more likely to stay if they come on their own accord and find food and safety there.

So, there are pros and cons to turtle pets, but if you can provide for all their needs, go for ‘em, they’re adorable!