Habitat Sweet Habitat
The opportunity to enjoy wildlife is one of the great pleasures of being a forestland owner. If support for wildlife is one of your goals, a few basic concepts can help.
All animals need four things: food, water, cover, and space. All of this must be available in the proper types and amounts for an animal’s health and survival. Each species has its own unique set of requirements which are collectively known as its habitat.
Managing for wildlife is based on a simple premise—animals will go where their habitat needs are met. Management techniques involve providing or enhancing those habitat requirements that are in short supply. This might include providing corridors of vegetation, leaving fallen logs in place, building nest boxes, or planting vegetation for food and cover.
Start by deciding what species you want to attract. Since habitat that attracts one species may exclude another, this is an important decision. You might want to enhance the habitat of a single species such as deer, or a group of species that use similar habitat, or you may want to attract as many species as possible—an emphasis on species richness.
The location of your property, its size, shape, and the animals native to the area will determine the limits of what you can do. Be realistic. If the goal is species richness you will need a large area of land in which to provide a variety of habitats. If you have a small property, it may be best to focus on a single habitat type.
You also need to consider how your wildlife management plans fit in with other goals. If, for example, timber production is your primary goal, your wildlife decisions will be built around that. In addition, plans should be consistent with the need for wildfire protection and other safety issues.
Understanding the habitat needs of the species you want to attract is the key. Some animals use ecotones—edges where one plant community meets another (e.g. where a forest borders a meadow). Others require large unbroken tracts of forestland. And some need different ecological habitats in different seasons or life stages.
Animals divide up the environment in complex ways. Landscaping plans should emphasize diversity in structure and composition with a great variety of types, sizes, heights, ages, and densities of vegetation. This will allow more species to share the same area.
Water is essential to wildlife. Some of the most valuable habitat includes rivers, streams, springs, and other wetlands. The riparian vegetation that borders streams and rivers is also essential—for food, nesting, cover, shade and much more.
While you’re helping wildlife, remember that the benefits go both ways. A healthy, diverse fauna provides many functions needed to maintain a healthy forest. One important “job” done by wildlife is insect control; birds, bats, even bears are insectivorous and help keep the insect populations down. Animals—primarily birds and insects—are also necessary for pollination. Wildlife aids in seed dispersal. Squirrels bury acorns, in effect planting oak trees. Burrowing animals such as rodents turn over the soil and recycle nutrients. By supporting wildlife, you are doing your part to enhance these vital ecological processes.
And don’t neglect the non-fuzzy creatures. Amphibians, reptiles, and insects all have important roles in the ecosystem and should be valued and protected. Since animals don’t recognize property boundaries, be aware that your activities will affect your neighbors. Communicate with them; you might even work together on a wildlife enhancement project.
The following are some general suggestions for encouraging wildlife. Your own management choices will be based on your specific property and goals.
Plant trees and shrubs that produce food such as berries, nuts, and acorns.
Provide and maintain corridors of habitat between tracts of land, especially those that connect to water.
Construct brush piles to give cover to small birds and mammals.
Retain or create dead or dying trees (snags) for the many birds, mammals, and insects that need them. Snags should be at least 4" dbh (diameter at breast height) and 6' tall.
Choose a variety of native plant species to provide different heights and cover.
Retain downed logs on the forest floor. Protect vegetation along waterways.
Thin forest stands to allow sunlight in to stimulate plant growth.
Talk with a wildlife biologist about habitat needs or learn through your own careful observations.
More Resources on Wildlife
- Forest Stewardship Series 8: Forest Wildlife
- An Ecosystem Management Strategy for Sierran Mixed Conifer Forests is a technical study that attempts to move the discussion beyond limited choices between fuels management and wildlife needs. By Malcolm North et al. 2009. Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-GTR-220. USDA Forest Service, PSW Research Station.
- Creating and Maintaining Wildlife, Insect, and Fish Habitat Structures in Dead Wood
- Northern Sierra Forest Songbird Communities Study