Everyone can do something to create high-quality wildlife habitat.
By David Hart
You don’t have to own a sprawling farm or a shed full of tractor equipment to turn your land into a wildlife oasis. You don’t even need a lot of money. Creating high-quality wildlife habitat can be as simple and inexpensive as you want it to be. What matters is that you do something, anything, to create habitat in places where it didn’t exist before.
Here is a look at five things you can do to attract more birds, bugs, deer and other critters without breaking the bank or your back.
Kill the Invaders
One of the most effective things you can do to help a variety of game and non-game species is to rid your landscape of non-native, invasive plants. In many instances, they out-compete native vegetation and provide little or no benefit to wildlife. Removing them allows beneficial native plants to grow.
First, though, you’ll need to identify which plants are good and which ones are bad. That’s easy, thanks to a wealth of online resources. Invasive.org, for example, lists hundreds of non-native plants and has a page listing Virginia’s invasive species. It includes descriptions and numerous photos to help you identify each plant.
Determining what’s growing on your land is the easy part. Getting rid of it can take some effort. It’s worth it, says quail recovery team project leader Marc Puckett, with the Department (DGIF).
“If left unchecked, non-native plants can overtake large areas, leaving virtually nothing that benefits wildlife,” he says.
You don’t have to know every invasive plant in the state. Puckett recommends learning to identify the ten worst. Sericea lespedeza, tree-of-heaven, and Chinese privet, among others, are highly invasive and found all over Virginia.
One of the simplest ways to kill those plants is by spot-spraying with a non-selective herbicide. Just fill up a backpack sprayer and spend a few hours on cool summer evenings walking your land and searching for those non-native plants. Spray them with herbicide. Larger trees can be killed by hacking through the outer bark with a machete and squirting the maximum safe concentration of glyphosate into the cuts.
“It can take several years to knock back the most invasive plants because there is a seed bank in the soil, but eventually you will get them under control,” says Puckett. “Native plants will grow after the invasives are gone.”
Grass be Gone
Arguably, tall fescue, a cool-season grass found throughout Virginia, is the worst invasive in the state. It’s a common sight in pastures and hay fields and is a valuable forage for livestock, but it grows virtually everywhere it gets adequate sunlight. Fescue can overtake entire landscapes, choking out native plants. It offers virtually no benefit to most wildlife species. The good news is that it can be easy to control.
“Spray it with a non-selective herbicide in the fall,” says DGIF Private Lands Biologist Justin Folks. “There will be a good seed bank of native plants in the soil, so you don’t need to do anything else.”
Glyphosate is the best all-purpose herbicide for killing fescue. When used properly, it is safe and effective. Folks recommends spraying cool-season grasses after the first frost in October or November. The fescue will still be alive then, but most other plants will be dormant.
“You don’t need to do anything after that except maybe go around with a backpack sprayer and spot-spray any fescue that may come back the following year,” says Folks.
If you don’t have the equipment to spray a large field, your local farmer’s cooperative will do it for you. It’s relatively inexpensive.
Park the Mower
It’s true that fescue doesn’t provide much benefit to wildlife, but if you don’t have the means or desire to kill that grass, the next best thing you can do is simply leave it alone, says Puckett. Overgrown fields provide nesting cover for turkeys and songbirds and fawning cover for whitetails. Rabbits and smaller rodents will use it, too.
The field will gradually change as blackberry thickets, stands of sumac and other beneficial plants overtake the grass. The transition will take years, but what started out as an overgrown, unkempt field will evolve into a young forest filled with game and nongame animals.
“If you must mow, wait until early spring and just mow once. March is best. That way, wildlife will have cover throughout the winter,” adds Puckett.
Soften the Edges
Still want to mow? Consider mowing less area. Leave wider buffers where fields meet forest or along ditches, tree rows, and fences. Edges are an important part of the habitat equation, serving as a transition from field to mature forest.
“One way to provide good edge habitat is to cut most of the trees 50 feet or so back from a field edge. We call it edge feathering. That allows sunlight to reach the ground, which results in a lot of new growth. Deer will eat the young plants and the stump sprouts and the thick cover will provide important habitat to a variety of wildlife,” says Folks.
If you don’t want to cut big trees or if you don’t have enough land, consider hinge-cutting smaller trees so they fall into the field. By cutting just enough of the trunk so the tree falls over, you create living brush piles that not only provide cover, they provide abundant food. Deer eat the buds and young leaves that are now in reach.
Folks recommends hinge-cutting such tree species as red maples, poplar, cedar, and locust that are five or six inches in diameter.
Hinge-cut trees may only live a couple of years, but a host of other plants will be growing under and around the felled tree after it dies. That thick growth creates cover for rabbits, quail, and songbirds and nesting cover for turkeys and many other birds.
Plant Shrubs and Pollinator-Friendly Plants
The decline in bees, butterflies, and other pollinator insects has been well-documented in recent years. One culprit? A steady loss of habitat containing flowers and shrubs that provides food for those insects. The solution is to plant flowers.
Establishing a large stand of perennial wildflowers requires the right equipment, but Folks says killing fescue and allowing the native plants to return can result in a flush of native flowers.
It’s not a bad idea to cultivate some wildflowers, too. Anything helps, even a small patch in the corner of your yard. Folks says perennial native flowers are best, but even non-invasive annuals are an excellent addition to the landscape. Annuals produce lots of flowers, which attract a wide variety of insects and birds and animals that feed on those insects.
“Many shrubs also flower and have an added benefit in that they provide cover throughout the year. Many produce fruit that is eaten by birds,” says Folks.
He recommends silky and redosier dogwood, American plum, indigo bush, and viburnums. Most are available through the Virginia Department of Forestry. They can be planted in strips 20 to 30 feet wide through a field or along the edge, but make sure what you plant is suitable for the soil type and the amount of sunlight that particular location receives.
Bees and butterflies flock to flowering plants like this field of goldenrod.
Still not sure? Help is just a phone call away. The DGIF has five private lands biologists who can provide technical assistance over the phone, via email, or by a visit to your property. Check this link and drop them a line to get started. It’s free.
- Department of Game & Inland Fisheries:
- National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative
- Department of Forestry, Seedling Purchase
- Natural Resources Conservation Service
- Invasive Species Database
Article and photos © David Hart.
This article originally appeared in Virginia Wildlife Magazine.
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