Turtle dogs: Hunting for threatened ornate box turtles with Boykin spaniels
John Rucker’s Boykin spaniels are specially trained to search for threatened ornate box turtles.
BEAVERVILLE, Ill. — Before taking his Boykin spaniels into the field to hunt ornate box turtles, John Rucker soaked them and said, “I’m pouring water on them so they smell better.”
I couldn’t help but ask, “So they smell better? Or so they can smell better?”
Rucker gave me a look, then smiled and said, “I’m a former English teacher.”
It’s so they could smell better.
In other quixotic tasks, Rucker, for the last couple decades, has traveled the country—he lives in the wilds of Montana—during the summer to use his dogs to track ornate box turtles for conservation.
In Illinois, ornate box turtles are very rare and listed as threatened.
On Tuesday, I tagged along with a group headed by Kim Roman, field biologist for the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.
“These charismatic species are good ambassadors for conservation,” she said.
That sentence packs bigger truth. Conservation is about building human interest and interaction as much as conservation. Most volunteers, interns and summer help find it more exciting to look for ornate box turtles than documenting rare plants.
So far, the study has encouraged Roman, who said, “Oh yeah, it’s a larger population than I was expecting. It has become a nice foot in the door to talk to landowners about conservation.”
Along the way, the group interacted with several nearby residents. Others in the group included John Griesbaum, Roman’s counterpart to the south, Bill Glass, retired ecologist (Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie), Marianne Hahn, president of Friends of the Kankakee, Eric Smith, a natural history biologist, and, from The Nature Conservancy, Rob Littiken and Fran Harty (who brought his precocious 8-year-old daughter Majela).
The hunt was on a mix of private lands, with permission, and lands owned by various non-governmental organizations. It was part of a larger statewide effort to assess populations of ornate box turtles. An ongoing radio telemetry study of the turtles is centered around Iroquois County State Fish and Wildlife Area and adjacent areas.
At the first stop, as Rucker staked leash posts, he used a massive sledgehammer head, which he found in a prairie. He thinks it was leftover from building the Transcontinental Railroad.
Boykin spaniels, official dog of South Carolina, are a relatively new breed best known as small waterfowl retrievers.
As we started, Roman spotted four regal fritillary butterflies, also threatened. I rambled with Littiken and he gave local history on ornate box turtles.
“They seem to like wet areas,” he said. “Locals would say they would eat them. I have seen them smashed on the road.”
Traditionally, after prairie fires, the turtles would quickly repopulate from surrounding areas. But now there is not enough connected habitat for that to happen, one of the reasons for conservation efforts.
“If you move them [to reestablish], they will try to go home,” he said. “You can try having them live in a pen for a year, but then they become live bait for coyotes. Coyotes will gnaw them. They will eat the feet.”
In the radio telemetry, they tracked one ornate box turtle that traveled 12 miles. They tracked one making a mile a day.
“Males go out and look for other groups or females,” he said.
We found no turtles at the first stop. On the way to the second stop, plumes of dust swirled behind our caravan from gravel and dirt roads.
“Not too many roads you go down that have pocket gopher holes in them.” cracked Hahn, that great force of nature.
No turtles at the second stop, but I spotted a snake slithering through the vegetation. It disappeared before it could be identified or make Majela’s day.
The third stop they knew would hold turtles, they had found five across the road on Monday.
Sure enough, in the shade of sumac, Jenny Wren, the 12-year-old mother to one and grandmother to two others she was hunting with, found an ornate box turtle. The gray muzzle got it done.
“All the training in the world won’t do what bloodlines do,” Rucker said.
He knew it was coming because he saw her getting “birdy.” For the non-hunters, retrievers excitedly signal when they near a find. With Boykin spaniels, it is tail wagging.
Griesbaum documented the turtle with an app. He checked the notch code on the shell and marked the location. This one was originally found just across the dirt road and marked on May 19.
After Jenny Wren found the one, I thought the dogs perked up, even in the building heat. Rucker said I wasn’t wrong.
“They absolutely have feeding frenzies,” he said. “They are like sharks.”
When they slowed again, he hustled them into his van, packed with eight dogs, and cranked the air conditioning.
It was time.