Gradual improvements for wildlife habitat


By Jim Smith 

With much of our natural habitat in the state altered in one way or another, the ecosystem could use a helping hand, even in your backyard. 

Ohio’s native wildlife species each depend on a certain variety of habitats in order to live. Understanding the different stages of succession from one stage to another as they grow older and the role that each stage plays to benefit wildlife can help us make decisions and plan for what we’d like to see on our own land. 

Assess your needs

When creating habitat there is no cookie-cutter right or wrong way, but there are a few aspects you’ll need to touch on. Think of each type of habitat as a piece of the ecological puzzle, each one benefiting the other in some sort of fashion.

In any habitat management plan, the first thing you’ll want to do is assess what already exists on your project site. Determine what kind of trees and plants are there, what the ground conditions are (forest floor, turf grass, old field, wetland, etc.), and the type of terrain in your project site. A soil test of the site will also help to understand the limitations or amendments needed for the plants you may decide to add to your site.

Once the project site had been assessed, establish goals of the project. A drawing of what the plan may look like could help with making management decisions. 

Intermediate habitats

Strategic placement of different species of vegetation and cover types with variable heights within the site can tremendously improve the overall productivity of the habitat. 

This variable height range and density, especially on the edge of a forest where it meets a field creates what is known as a feathered edge. This gradual transition from one habitat type to another provides great benefits to wildlife. 

With these intermediate habitat types in decline, some of our native pollinators, birds and mammals seem to fade with them. Having too much of one specific habitat hurts the ecosystem as a whole. 

Imagine a desert, for instance, somewhere with a limited amount of resources could only sustain a limited amount of individuals. This edge affect could be achieved by thinning out some less desirable trees around the edge of the forest. 

Trees and shrubs

Removing trees that are considered low value within your goals and leaving those that are more desirable would enhance the production of the high value trees for wildlife food or timber sales. 

This opening of the canopy allows for sunlight to reach the forest floor and allow understory plants to flourish while still having a variety in vertical structure around them. 

Deciding to keep trees and shrubs of different heights will benefit the overall diversity in the area and provide food and cover for many different species of wildlife. 

There are ways to improve habitat by adjusting your everyday chores or activities. Grassland management, in some cases, is as simple as a farmer being strategic and mindful with their hay harvest, keeping nesting and brood-rearing season in mind. 

If you’re cutting trees down for firewood, snags and den trees make great overwintering spots for many bird species and mammals seeking shelter during harsh winter months within mature forests, so consider leaving trees that have cavities or broken off tops. 

When limbing low-hanging branches around your field or yard, consider making a series of piles with the branches you’ve removed. These brush piles generally are about 10 feet in diameter and 6 feet high and provide cover for small mammals and birds when nesting or escaping predators. 

They also provide great overwintering sites for native pollinators. Ideal locations for brush piles can be along field edges, woodland openings, and near a food and water source. 

Private lands

Most of the state’s wildlife depends on private lands to provide the habitat they need. Piles of tree limbs, brushy hedgerows, rocks and other debris were common to see on most farms and private properties years ago. Larger fields with fewer fence rows and fragmentation between them led to the lack of mid succession, thicket habitat. 

The Natural Resources Conservation Service works with landowners across the country to implement practices that help reintroduce some of these habitat types back into the environment. Local soil and water offices and NRCS staff are available to assist anyone interested in conservation on their property. Qualifying individuals could be eligible for cost-share opportunities through federal programs. 

With a little bit of effort and insight, these once-abundant aspects of the ecosystem can again become pivotal contributors to natural diversity. Conservation shouldn’t be a daunting task. Remember to have fun with it, sit back and enjoy the process — every little bit helps!

For any questions regarding habitat management or enhancement practices, contact your local soil and water conservation district or natural resources conservation service field office.

(Jim Smith is the district technician for the Medina Soil and Water Conservation District. He can be reached at


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