Saturday, May 21, 2011

The nest

I started this blog because after owning sulcatas for the last twelve years, I've found that while there's good basic information out there, I seem to have tortoises that don't like to conform to their species known behaviors.  Leave it to me to have the weirdos.

For starters, we have three sulcatas.  The baby is Bradley, he's about four or five years old now.  Sherman is the female and she's around eleven or twelve.  Panzer is the elder of the group, about a year older than Shermie.  Sulcatas are known to be pretty solitary animals and can be very aggressive to other tortoises of their own as well as other species.  Our three however are definitely a bonded group.  The only time we've ever seen any aggression is when Sherman and Panzer were mating, Panz didn't want Bradley anywhere near them.  So Bradley hung out on his side of the yard all alone. 

It's also been widely recorded that sulcatas don't tolerate temperatures below 50 degrees.  While we would never leave ours out all winter - our temps can drop to zero and a bit below - we've found that ours will come out of their 'room' when temps are in the 30s if the sun is out.  Don't get me wrong, they're not happy about the cold weather, but they do come out and graze during the warmest part of the day and then back to their area. 

And of course there's the dead of winter.  Most 'normal' humans have a building specifically for their sulcatas during this time.  They've got the UVA/UVB lights set up, heaters, etc.  Well, we're not normal here so they live in the house with us.  Yep, just move them right in. 

Initially we'd set up the den - a very large room in our house - for them.  We built a large eight foot by eight foot with four foot by four foot side section for them to live in.  Panzer made it clear very quickly that he did not approve and spent his days ramming the side of the pens.  After listening to the incessant ramming, we caved and just let them have the entire room to themselves.  We built a 'bedroom' for them in a corner, complete with a thick layer of hay and covered with a tarp and heater kept blowing into it.  The room is surrounded with floor to ceiling windows that they would lay in front of during the day. 

The following year our pet rescue (mostly dogs, some cats) had expanded drastically and the den was used as a quarantine room for dogs coming from shelters.  This meant the shell kids moved into the main part of the house with us. 

Now let me say this; I love those shell kids very much.  But when you live with them, it's not easy.  The first morning I awoke to screaming birds.  I looked in the living room to see one of the cages moving across the room.  Panz had started his day early, cruising around the perimeter and ran right into the lower bar of the bird cage.  In typical sulcata fashion, he decided to continue his walk, dragging whatever was in his way with him, much like a military tank, hence their names.  Thank God the bird cages were on wheels!  As the winter wore on, this became a regular scene, either Sherm or Panz dragging something around the room.  Every day I had to re-arrange furniture numerous times. 

This past winter we thought we'd be smart.  Sulcatas can't climb steps so we put them in the laundry / mud rooms.  That lasted all of three days before - of course - they taught themselves how to climb stairs.  Now, in all fairness, it's not like it's an entire floor.  It's a single step.  But even so, it's not something they're supposed to be able to do.  Climbing over stuff in the yard yes, but up a step??  Really??  So last year we had the same problem as years before, with furniture forever being moved. 

Our hope is that by this winter we will be moved.  We've been looking at a house further south that has an unfinished basement with access to the backyard.  Ideally we can sell the house we are in now and buy that one and turn that basement into their winter room.  I'd love to put down heated tile floors for easy of cleaning.  They're good about going in and out when you open the doors for them so it would be an ideal set up.  We will see how that pans out!

Anyway, the most recent non-sulcata behavior comes compliments of Sherman.  She and Panz have been mating for nearly a year now.  Because all three of ours came from a rescue the last thing we wanted was for them to be producing more sulcatas.  Sadly, they're over bred as it is and sold by irresponsible breeders looking to make a buck to people that don't bother to do their homework.  And of course the breeders aren't about to be honest about how difficult this species can be, how destructive they are or how large they get because who would want one when they know the truth!  Very few people for sure.  Zoos are full and not taking more in, so those that buy them not bothering to look into them first usually dump them when they're a couple years old.  Because they've not done that vital research first, they usually die the first winter they're no longer in captivity. 

When they began mating we contacted the rescue and consulted a forum we belong to, as well as talked to the veterinarian we use for their care.  All agreed that while it is possible to spay and neuter tortoises, it's very difficult as you have to cut through the shell and that makes for a long recovery process.  Because it's done so seldom we'd have had to take them to the state university's veterinary department for the surgery.  It just wasn't anything we were willing to do.  So the easiest way to deal with the mating was to just destroy the eggs as soon as they were laid.  At that point it's just an egg, with a barely detectable micro tiny spot where a hatching may develop.  I was quite hesitant at first, but after the first few it didn't really phase me anymore.  I cracked them and tossed them into the back pasture where the wildlife back there would eat them.  At least they can benefit!

Last year while still inside during the end of winter Sherm laid a few eggs.  And that was it.  Odd.  They usually lay quite a few.  I figured since it was her first clutch that's all she was going to lay.  And that was fine.  Never read it on line, but she was healthy so it wasn't an issue.  About two months ago I noticed that she was getting lazy and eating little.  Classic signs of a gravid female so I knew there were eggs on the way.  Sure enough, within a week or two she started laying.  Under normal circumstances, a sulcata will dig a couple 'test' nests and then dig the one she's going to use.  No one knows if the test nests are actually her testing to find the right place or if they're to throw off any predators.  But when she picks the right spot, she'll dig a hole big enough for her entire body a foot or more deep and then in the back she digs another smaller nest that she lays the eggs in.  Once laid, she begins covering the entire nest with sand.  During this time she's in a total trance and notices nothing going on around her. 

Well, leave it to Sherm to be different.  She spent a week and a half laying eggs all over the yard, not covered at all in any way.  Some she cracked when she laid them, others were fine.  Those that were fine I cracked myself and into the pasture they went.  She started with just an egg a day and went up to four a day then back down then nothing.  I assumed she was just a lousy mom and didn't think more of it.  Until.............

Earlier this week I noticed she was digging up areas of the ground. I know they live in crazy massive cave systems in the wild so I didn't think much of it. Bradley dug one last year that was easily 15 feet deep so I figured she was doing the same thing. We found five spots she'd started digging and then moved away from.

That should have sent up a flag but I didn't give it much thought. Yesterday I walked out to find her in a big hole. The others she'd gotten maybe six to eight inches deep before abandoning them. This one was a couple feet deep. Again, I should have paid more attention because when I went to pet her she didn't stick her head out any further or push her head against my hand like she always does, just kept digging like she didn't notice me. Duh!

I went back to what I was doing and didn't think more of it. I came out several hours later to find she'd covered up the cave she'd dug and wanted food and water. That's when it finally sunk in - she'd laid more eggs in a nest - classic example of what they normally do!  Now she decides to be a normal sulcata?  Really?

Well, of course the normal couldn't stick.  This morning I found her sitting on the nest.  Last night, she was sitting on the nest.  From everything I've read, she should have buried them and went on her merry way.  Instead, she's acting more like a gator, guarding her nest, chasing off the dogs when they come sniffing around.  She's just one confused little girl!  And John said this morning she and Panz were mating again.  *sigh*

According to the internet once they've started to cover the nest it's nearly impossible to find the eggs in there if you try to dig it up. So at this point we're just hoping none are fertile or the ground is too cold for them to incubate if they are. I guess in 88 days or so we will see.

Above is the picture of her in her 'cave' which turned out to be her nest.  Oh, and for more interesting activity, the cave that Bradley dug last year?  He won't go near it now!  And Sherm and Panz have never dug a single cave.  All very unusual!

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