The country turtle, and the city turtle


November 21, 1999|By MIKE BURNS

LET'S TALK about the animals. About the ways of turtles, bluebirds and owls. And whether pigs have wings. (Never mind that last one; that's another Carroll story.)

The tiny bog turtle has achieved legendary status in Hampstead, where presence of the threatened reptile has blocked construction of a badly needed Route 30 bypass. Some have even proposed the nondescript hardshell as the town's official symbol.

The legally protected animals' presence in the planned path of the bypass is so far without solution. The most direct approach would be to remove the turtles to another wetlands home. But picking the right place to ensure survival of the shrinking species is tricky.

So it was surprising to hear last month that some Carroll County bog turtles had found a new home in the middle of Baltimore.

The turtles were placed in the Maryland Wilderness closure at the Baltimore Zoo. There's a big sign with oversized picture of the bog turtles that alerts visitors along the wooden walkway to their presence.

But there's no sign of the live creatures. They are buried in the mud, under the cover of grasses and plants, and will rarely if ever be seen by zoogoers. The sign is all you get.

This is an exhibit?

To call it an "exhibit" is to redefine the term. It is certainly one of the most unusual features at the zoo.

Zoos exist to bring animals to the view of the public, to promote appreciation and understanding of our fellow creatures. The art of the zookeeper is to make the animal visible to visitors while maintaining a comfortable habitat for the creature. Zoos educate, certainly, but not in the same way as books and films and lecture series.

In this case, the Baltimore Zoo has chosen not to display the animal but to provide it with a manmade habitat, even though one of the healthiest natural habitats of the creature exists but an hour's drive away.

So you wonder the purpose of such a display. The zoo says the signs help to encourage awareness of wetlands and of animals that live there. But this display doesn't bring humans any closer to the reclusive reptiles. And there are many other denizens of the bog and steam that are visible in this setting and in the zoo's reptile house.

The bog turtle is, in fact, the subject of a research project at the zoo. Scientists have attached radio transmitters to the shells of the nine adult turtles to track their well-being. They hope to better learn what type of habitat and conditions the bog turtles prefer; that would make it easier to create wild habitat for the rare species.

And that may eventually benefit Hampstead in solving its bypass dilemma.

The bog turtle, which has fallen victim to extensive wetlands habitat losses and an insatiable black market demand by collectors, is finally getting the kind of human protection it needs to recover.

Bluebird revival

So, too, is the blue bird. Their numbers were once in decline, partly from human conversion of grasslands and replacement of wooden fences with metal, partly from the competition for nests with more aggressive exotic species.

But in the last quarter-century campaigns to build more blue bird houses have been wildly successful. And so have the grateful tenants of these boxes with the exactly measured 1 1/2-inch entry hole.

More blue bird houses are put up by people each year. More houses are erected for this tiny colorful songbird than for any other wild bird. Blue bird recovery has been remarkable.

Unlike most other birds, blue birds don't mind if you open the box to check on their nesting progress. After the chicks are born, you can take them from the nest and hold them in the cup of your hand without upsetting the parents. And from such careful observations of the nest, you may well be able to see the youngsters finally take flight. Plus, it's not uncommon for the cheery birds to raise more than one brood in a year.

All in all, quite a handsome return on a modest investment in a bird house. Just ask my neighbor. He has four blue bird boxes and is looking for a spot to place another one next spring.

What about the owls? Well, I'm talking about the Westminster High Owls that won their fourth straight state cross country championship last weekend.

It was a remarkable team victory in a sport that gets little attention and when it does it's usually focused on which runner finished first. These Owls demonstrated that it's group effort and motivation that wins championships.

Congratulations from one who usually ran at the back of the pack.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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