How to enhance wildlife habitat on your property

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My dad seeded and reseeded his lawn more times than I can count during my childhood. I never understood his dedication. His yard sits 500 feet off the road in the middle of the woods, and no one can even see it from the road. Regardless, he wasn’t content until it looked like a golf course fairway.

Many property owners are willing to put this kind of effort into establishing their lawns. However, not as many are willing to give the same consideration to improving wildlife habitats on their property.

Dad’s lawn has been established for many years, and he’s not entirely over it, but he’s gone from a total overhaul every five or so years to an annual maintenance routine. Now, he’s a lot more focused on enhancing his property, particularly, for the wildlife that call it home.

Improving habitat quality for wildlife on your property or within your yard increases wildlife viewing and recreational opportunities and helps maintain the health of local ecosystems.

Enhancing wildlife habitat

There are simple ways to make your property more inviting to wildlife. Not every strategy is meant for every property, but some practices are universally helpful.

Control noxious weeds and non-native invasive plant species. Eliminating noxious weeds and non-native invasive plant species is one of the most effective ways to improve wildlife habitat. These plants often have no benefits for wildlife, they out-compete native plant species wildlife rely on and they reduce the diversity of natural plant communities.

Wildlife benefit most from native plants, which they rely on for food, shelter and reproduction. Simply removing and replacing invasive species with native plants or controlling the expansion of non-native species to conserve the biodiversity of plants in your yard will enhance wildlife habitat.

Build a brush pile. Brush piles provide a resting spot, escape cover and den sites for wildlife. Many small mammals take cover in brush piles. Songbirds use them as perch sites, especially when they are located near feeding or nesting sites. Reptiles and amphibians use them for breeding, feeding and resting when they are located near water.

Brush piles should be arranged with the largest wood at the bottom and the smallest limbs at the top so that the pile is slightly elevated from the ground and decays more slowly.

They will have the greatest impact when they are located near food sources and areas where cover is sparse or absent. Forest openings, edges and timbered areas are ideal locations for brush piles.

Leave snags. Snags are dead or partially dead standing trees that provide cavities for nesting, perches for hunting and an abundant supply of food for wildlife that eat insects. Birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians all utilize snags. Different animals prefer different sizes and types of snags, so landowners that can leave a variety of snags standing are encouraged to do so.

The easiest way to provide snags for wildlife is to leave existing snags in places where they are not dangerous to people. Another method to create snags is deadening trees so they remain standing. The success of this process depends on the method used, the tree species, the current health of the tree and other site-specific characteristics such as the presence of forest pests that may accelerate the tree’s death.

Establish permanent vegetation for wildlife. Plant trees, shrubs, grasses and herbaceous plants that provide food, cover or both for wildlife. Native plants have the greatest benefit for wildlife as they have evolved and adapted together. Different types of plants can be used to establish pollinator gardens, prairie gardens, buffers near water, habitats along forest edges and openings and more.

Nesting areas. Providing nest boxes, platforms or structures where natural nesting sites are absent or in low numbers is another way to improve habitat.

Trim trees and shrubs. Trimming trees and shrubs to enhance the growth of species that produce more food and cover for wildlife is called releasing. It involves removing other plants that are shading it and competing for sunlight. This process is beneficial to help fruiting shrubs and trees and nut-producing trees produce more food for wildlife and understory shrubs and evergreens provide more nesting sites and cover.

Protect stream banks. Stream banks are important for a variety of wildlife, including birds, mammals, fish, amphibians and reptiles. Fencing out livestock and establishing a riparian buffer improves wildlife habitat, decreases erosion and sedimentation and improves water quality. Riparian vegetation along stream banks provides food, cover and nestings sites for a variety of wildlife.

Protect temporary pools. Temporary pools, which include both vernal and autumnal pools are critical for amphibian reproduction and an integral part of local ecosystems. These pools typically only hold water during rainy parts of the year — spring and fall — and dry out during other parts. These pools may just look like wet or muddy areas to many landowners, however, they are essential to maintain amphibian populations and support a web of interactions between a variety of other organisms that include aquatic insects, salamanders, frogs, turtles, snakes, large and small mammals, waterfowl and songbirds.

Plant a grassland area. Native warm-season grasses grow in tall, thick bunches and provide a different kind of habitat than the grasses we use in our lawns. The dense bunches provide nesting and foraging cover for upland game birds such as turkeys and pheasants, various waterfowl and other ground-nesting grassland species. They also provide year-round cover for mammals and seeds for many small songbirds. However, establishing a grassland area can take anywhere from one to four years, so patience is required.

Restore a wetland. Consider restoring a wetland to its natural state where one may have previously been drained to create cropland by removing tiles or plugging the ditches that drain them. Wetlands provide breeding, nesting and feeding habitat for amphibians, waterfowl, shorebirds and songbirds. They also provide resting and feeding places for migratory birds, food and cover for a number of mammals, reduce erosion and flooding and purify water supplies by filtering pollutants.

Protect spring seeps. Spring seeps are areas where fresh water from below the ground flows to the surface to form small streams or bodies of water. They are especially important during the winter as they may be the only source of fresh water for wildlife, remaining unfrozen even in the coldest weather. They also support green vegetation when other food sources are scarce. Spring seeps are heavily used by wildlife throughout the year for water, food, hibernation and migration. It’s important to protect these areas by preventing any activities that may degrade them. Spring seeps can be enhanced by planting beneficial trees and shrubs around the seep and encouraging the growth of herbaceous vegetation around its perimeter.

Create wildlife corridors. Wildlife corridors connect two isolated habitats that are separated by distance. These can occur in the form of fencerows or hedge rows along agricultural fields, a buffer strip along a stream or even a wooded patch that connects two woodlots. Wildlife corridors benefit a variety of wildlife that are both passing through or living within them by providing food and cover. Establishing wildlife corridors on your property can help restore past connections between wildlife in isolated habitats.

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