Desert Tortoise: Winter Improvement Tips

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A desert tortoise patrols its backyard habitat.

As the temperature drops outside and desert tortoises are slumbering in their burrows, we here at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center are busy catching up on projects around the site. This is also a perfect time for desert tortoise custodians to work on home projects and make habitat improvements for their own pet tortoise in preparation for the spring emergence. You might be a seasoned tortoise custodian or just getting started; either way, here are some simple and helpful tips for making the home habitat safe and interactive for your tortoise.

Tip 1: Escape-proof Your Yard
When a pet desert tortoise escapes from a yard, it isn’t usually a family member that leaves a gate open but a gardener or meter reader that didn’t know a tortoise was in the yard. Unfortunately, once a pet tortoise escapes, it is not always easy to reunite him with the custodian. An easy fix for preventing this mishap is to add a simple and removable gate barrier. The barrier should be at least 18 inches high and made of a solid material. A large piece of particleboard is a good option, which can be secured by placing four cinder blocks (one on each side) on both ends of the board. This design works great, especially if there is a need for the board to be removed temporarily. Once the gate barrier is in place, take a look at the entire fence line and make sure it is secure and free of holes or breaches.

Tip 2: Eliminate Hazards
Bundle up with a scarf and a pair of gloves and enjoy some family time, outdoors! This is a great time of year to clean up your yard and look for hazards that may harm your tortoise. Desert tortoises are excellent climbers, and they may try to climb over piles of debris or unused equipment, which can be hazardous if the tortoise falls backward, getting trapped on its “back.” Look for other hazards to fix, like an unfenced pool or water feature, which a tortoise could fall into. By sprucing up your yard this winter, you can make it a safer environment for your family pet this spring!

Colorful globemallow is a favorite food of the desert tortoise.

Tip 3: Spring Planting
Spring is right around the corner, so now is a great time to start thinking about greenery you can add to your yard when the weather warms up! Desert tortoises are natural foragers, and they love to roam the yard munching on plants and grasses. Tortoise- friendly forage such as globemallow, primrose, hibiscus, and Bermuda grass will help provide your pet tortoise with the right nutrition throughout the active season. Check with your local nursery for availability and growing recommendations for your climate.

Lori Scott is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Desert Tortoises Spotlight Teacher Workshop.