Evaluating Your Land's Habitat Potential

The three essential ingredients of good wildlife habitat are:

  • Food
  • Water
  • Cover

Always keep them in mind when evaluating your land.

Look first at the plants on your property — the amount and distribution of trees, crops, shrubs, and grass. Vegetation largely determines the types of animals that can live on a plot of land. Plants are the foundation of nature’s food web, of which every animal is a part. Plant-eating animals — such as deer, rabbits, and many insects — convert plant energy to protein and fats. Carnivores — hawks, owls, bobcats, predatory insects, and insect-eating birds — feed on the plant eaters. This complex food web will collapse without plants.

Also note the sources of water. Wildlife in Missouri have varied water requirements. Salamanders need a fish-free pond for spawning. Species such as deer and turkey need water daily. Water may become the focal point of a wildlife plan because it is a limiting factor for some animals.

Cover is essential and will be discussed throughout this handbook. Both natural and man-made cover provide resting, roosting, nesting, protection, and foraging areas. You can manage natural cover by planting, pruning, thinning, burning, or clearing. Manmade cover includes downed tree structures, feathered edges, nesting boxes, rock piles, log piles, and similar structures.

Familiarizing yourself with your land will help you know what animals live there and what others you would be able to attract. As you walk your land, take notes often and during all seasons. Land and animals change through the year, and you will see new signs during each trip. Look for scratch marks, tracks, burrows, nests, and other signs. Note the kinds of animals on your land, the areas they are using, and the times you observe them. In your evaluation, it may help to divide your property into wildlife habitat types: cropland, grassland (including pasture), forests, savannas, glades, wetlands, and possibly some unique habitats, such as fens and bogs.

The following questions will help you evaluate your current management of these habitat types in terms of benefits to wildlife. Ideally, you should answer, “Yes” to every question.

Cropland

  • Do you avoid fall tillage? The fall plowing of sloping cropland increases erosion and eliminates crop residues that feed wildlife during the winter.
  • At harvest, do you leave a few rows of grain at the field edge? This standing grain provides food and cover for wildlife during winter months.
  • Do you avoid heavy herbicide and insecticide applications? When applied in excess of label instructions, herbicides and insecticides eliminate important wildlife food sources by destroying food plants and insects in non-crop areas.
  • Do you plant cover crops that improve soil structure, provide wildlife value, and reduce soil loss?
  • Do you have strips of grass or trees alongside crop fields to prevent sediment, herbicides, and pesticides from entering streams, ponds, and lakes?

Grassland and Pasture

  • Do you graze livestock on a rotation among several pastures? Rotating cattle through different pastures to leave residual cover can improve both beef production and wildlife habitat.
  • Do you use soil tests to manage soil fertility? Improved soil fertility can contribute to both wildlife and domestic livestock productivity depending on the types of grasses present. It is important that you first have the soil tested to know if nutrients may be lacking.
  • Are native warm-season grasses included in your grazing system? Grasses such as big bluestem, Indian grass, and switch grass that grow during the hot summer months provide summer livestock grazing and wildlife food and cover.
  • Is there a variety of forbs in your pastures? Many forbs such as prairie blazing star, milkweed, and coneflower provide wildlife food and support insects such as butterflies and pollinating bees.
  • Are there legumes in your pastures? Legumes such as beggar's lice, partridge pea, and Korean lespedeza add nitrogen to the soil, help improve forage for cattle, and attract insects on which wildlife feed.
  • Do you wait until after July 15 to harvest hay or mow grassland? Mowing later in the summer is less harmful to nesting birds and young wildlife that are vulnerable earlier in the spring.
  • Do you search for and eliminate noxious/invasive plants growing on your grassland areas? Teasel, spotted knapweed, sericea lespedeza, and musk thistles are examples of plants that must be controlled.
  • Do you use prescribed fire in your grassland management? Controlled burning can promote plants that are beneficial to both wildlife and livestock. Fire also removes dead plant litter and recycles nutrients back into the soil.

Forests and Woodlands

  • Do you prevent cattle grazing in your woodland and woodland edges? Forests and woodlands should be protected from grazing cattle. Too many grazing animals compact the soil, damage tree roots, and trample or eat tree seedlings.
  • When you harvest timber or cut firewood, do you build downed tree structures (DTS) from the trimmings rather than burning them? Leaving DTS around a woodland creates an uneven, shrubby edge that provides food and cover for wildlife.
  • When harvesting timber, do you use best management practices to control soil erosion? Examples include proper construction of logging trails and stream crossings and protecting stream buffers.
  • Have you maintained a border or edge between the woodland and other habitat types? Fields that adjoin a wooded area are more attractive to wildlife when a grassy or shrubby border is established and maintained.

Savannas and Open Woodlands

  • Do you have grassland areas with widely scattered oak and hickory trees? Savannas are unique habitats that transition between prairie and forest and are dominated by native grasses and wildflowers.
  • If you have savanna and open woodland habitat, have you maintained it with prescribed burning?

Glades

  • Are there rocky areas on your property with thin soils?
  • Have you kept these areas open and dominated by native grasses and forbs? Neglected glade habitat is often overgrown by cedar trees. Careful removal of the cedar and prescribed burning can revive glade habitat.

Wetlands

  • Are there areas on your property with soils that remain moist or wet for much or all of the year? These areas may be wetlands, dominated by plants that tolerate excessive moisture. They make excellent habitat for all kinds of waterfowl, shorebirds, and songbirds. Natural wetlands along streams and rivers are important as fish spawning and rearing areas.
  • Are these naturally wet areas or a result of man-made structures such as levees or water-control devices? If you have permanently moist areas created naturally or by man-made structures, they can be managed for wetland benefits.
  • Are there fields on your property too wet to farm? These wet fields are the best sites for restoring or developing wetlands on private property.

Fencerows and Other Unique Habitats

  • Have you allowed fencerows to grow up in shrubs, vines, and small trees? Fencerows provide travel lanes between different habitat types if woody plants are present.
  • Do you avoid applying herbicides to fencerows? Destroying fencerow vegetation reduces both the food supply and the cover that these areas provide. However, light application can set back edge growth and provide better cover.
  • Are brushy, weedy, or grassy strips present between crops, pastures, and woodlands? These buffer strips provide necessary cover, nesting, and feeding areas for wildlife.

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