Backyard C.S.I.

By Jeff Nichols | January 2, 2005
From Missouri Conservationist: Jan 2005

As a forensic crime scene investigator for the Columbia Police Department, I have investigated a variety of crime scenes. Each one presents new challenges.

I'm currently working on a scene, however, that is totally different from the criminal cases I investigate at work. This on-going investigation takes place in my own backyard.

Before I opened this case file, I had to do some background research on the subjects I may encounter. As with any investigation, it is important to learn as much as I can about the characters that are involved. Knowing where the suspects live, their survival needs and where they spend their time is valuable in any case. I also need to know where to get the answers to these questions.

Case Introduction

Ten years ago, my wife and I purchased five acres bordering the Columbia city limits where we would build our home. The scene was thick with cedar trees and underbrush, typical of regenerated farmland.

As I investigated the acreage, I found clues indicating high potential for improving wildlife habitat. As I made my way through the underbrush, I found red cedar, persimmon, black walnut, white and black oak trees, wild plum, and a variety of native grasses. I envisioned clover strips, winter wheat plots, brush piles and wild blackberry thickets along nature trails. I couldn't wait to start my case work.


Over the years, I have accumulated many issues of the Missouri Conservationist magazine. I don't throw them away because they help me with habitat improvement, wildlife identification and many other conservation topics. I often visit the Conservation Department's web site.

Another site, Outdoor Endeavors, links to state fish and wildlife departments all around the country. Of course, you can always contact your local conservation agent, private land conservationist or county extension office for advice.

During my case investigation, I frequently used information from all these resources for guidance. A good detective should have lots of sources.

Action Taken

I began clearing the underbrush with a chain saw for our first food plot. It was late winter, so I didn't have to contend with chiggers and ticks. Remember, you don't need acres of row crops to attract a variety of wildlife. You just need to supply a diversity of food and habitat.

As cedar posts accumulated, I crisscrossed them and piled cedar boughs on top. These brushpiles provide rabbits refuge from most predators. By late summer, I used our garden tiller to break up soil until it was suitable for planting fall wheat. Wheat is excellent winter food for deer, turkeys and rabbits, and it doesn't require a finely tilled seed bed to germinate. After the wheat matures in late spring, the seed heads fall to the ground and are more accessible to quail, doves and songbirds.

I also left standing any wildlife-friendly trees such as oak, ash, hickory, walnut, persimmon and a grove of wild plum trees for nut and fruit production.

The following February, I overseeded the young wheat with Ladino clover. I recommend broadcasting clover onto a moderately deep snow for two reasons. First, you can determine instantly if your seed is evenly distributed. Second, the moisture is beneficial when the snow melts. By spring, the clover began to emerge.

Soon I detected additional evidence of activity around this new planting in the form of deer tracks, turkey feathers and fresh droppings. When I walked, rabbits scampered into the brushpiles I built near the clover, and mourning doves flew out of the wheat patch into nearby trees.

The following fall I downloaded a seedling order form from the Conservation Department's web site. I purchased several bundles of wild blackberries and Scotch pines, which I planted the following spring. The blackberries were as much for me as for wildlife, because I love hot blackberry cobbler with a scoop of ice cream. Growing my own Christmas tree is more rewarding than buying one from a vendor, even though I planted far more trees than I will ever harvest.


After a long day at the office, my wife and I often enjoy an exercise walk on our nature trail. We see a variety of songbirds flitting from tree to tree above us and occasionally glimpse a gliding barred owl. Many times we have walked up on grazing whitetail deer or wild turkey flocks near the clover. Every time I pass the young Scotch pines, I stop to see if they've grown from the day before.

Not only does our acreage help drive away stress from work and other pressures, but it also offers other rewards.

Before the 2003 spring turkey season, my 13-year-old son Gable and I built a hunting blind next to our clover plot. We used cedar boughs from our own trees. To my great joy, he harvested his first wild turkey gobbler the second week of the season. Our 7-year-old daughter, Aubrianna, loves searching for molted feathers, animal tracks in the mud or, her favorite, three-toed box turtles.

I grew up hunting and fishing in the Ozark Mountains when deer and turkeys were scarce. I don't recall anyone talking about managing for wildlife back then.

Only after I moved from my boyhood home did I realize that conservation works best when folks like you and me improve our land to benefit wildlife by planting wildlife cover, food plots or improving timber stands.

Case Disposition

Over the years I have heard others say that wildlife management is the sole responsibility of the Conservation Department. That's like saying it's the sole responsibility of the police to deter and solve crime. Studies prove that community efforts really make a difference.

Even though investigating crimes scenes can be very interesting and rewarding, I always look forward to the conservation challenge in my own backyard. This is one case file I'll never close. The next time you hear C.S.I., think of those initials as meaning, "Conservation Serving Individuals."


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This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Director - Ara Clark
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler