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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Wildlife habitat management is year-round, winter is a good time for many chores

Habitat work on a property being managed for wildlife is a year-round proposition.

Weather permitting, winter is a good time for many important chores.

Creating good habitat for white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, small game, furbearers, songbirds and other non-game wildlife is an ongoing process of mowing, cutting and trimming trees, seasonal plantings and allowing some areas to naturally regenerate after mowing on a rotational basis. Habitat has to be maintained to retain its high value to wildlife.

Many wildlife management chores can be completed in winter (Photo by Art Lander Jr.)

Wildlife need a variety of cover types that provide food, escape from predators and severe weather, and offer the seclusion needed to rest and raise their young without harassment.

A ratio of 50 percent open land to 50 percent brush and woodlands is ideal for wildlife diversity, but not always possible because of ongoing farm operations or existing land conditions.

Develop a Management Plan

The first step is to develop a plan.

Decide what your priorities are, keeping in mind the target species or activities — hunting, wildlife photography, or just walking and observing wildlife.

In central Kentucky, rural land falls into four categories: flat, open land suitable for cultivation, forage pasture, woodlands, and brushy hillsides.

On land that is actively being row cropped, concentrate your efforts on out-of-the-way parcels of land or lands set aside from production.

These areas are especially important to small game. Early successional habitat is maintained by strip mowing or prescribed burning.

A turkey hen with poults (Photo by Joe Lacefield, KDFWR)

For land in hay production, plant part of the area in native warm-season grasses, which can be cut later in the season. This helps nesting rabbits and songbirds. If this land is rested after cutting there will be re-growth by September, which will provide winter cover for wildlife.

Marginal land on hillsides that can’t be cultivated or is not being pastured, should be allowed to grow up in weeds, briars, cedars, saplings and shrubs. This creates an edge effect of early plant successional habitat which makes good fawning and bedding areas for deer, and nesting and feeding areas for rabbits, wild turkeys and songbirds. Wild turkey poults need these types of areas to find grasshoppers and other bugs.

Since deer rely heavily on browse for winter food, these reverting fields are important because they also provide tender shoots and buds on hardwood trees and shrubs.

Strip Mowing

Winter is a good time to strip mow marginal land, keeping at least half in standing weeds and brush where wildlife can find cover during cold weather and snow. This should be done on a two-year cycle, to ensure continuous regeneration.

When it’s dry enough, run over the mowed strips with a disk harrow or tiller to break up the soil, and allow nature to take its course. Disturbing the soil encourages the growth of natural foods.

Cut Lanes

Deer and wild turkey movement can be manipulated by cutting lanes or trails through woodlands, cedar thickets and brushy areas.

This creates access in case of wildfire, too. Use a chainsaw to cut the trails, then mow with a tractor. Mow in late winter, then again in the early fall. If there’s enough light, plant the trails in clover.

Trails also come in handy for quietly accessing hunting areas or just observing wildlife while walking.

Cut Trees That Aren’t Beneficial to Wildlife

Timber stand improvement should be used to cull out unwanted trees and provide more space for desirable species.

Removing undesirable species, including non-native invasive trees, and shrubs like Asian honeysuckle will open up the forest to sunlight that will tree stimulate sapling growth.

Unwanted trees don’t need to be cut. They can be girdled, and killed on the stump, by making several two-inch deep cuts all the way around the tree trunk, severing its inner bark, or cambium layer.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for the Northern Kentucky Tribune. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

Job one is to protect and encourage stands of white oak, red oak, beech, walnut and hickory trees, the most beneficial mast (nut) producers, for deer, wild turkey and other species of forest wildlife. Cut brush, small cedar trees and unwanted tree species away from large mast-producing oaks and other desirable tree species.

On-field edges encourage persimmon trees. The orange fruit is a fall favorite of deer and furbearers such as raccoons and opossums. Dogwood, redbud and wild plum should also be protected. Many shrubs are beneficial because they produce both fruit and browse.

Cut vines away from oak trees. Don’t fell trees with cavities that could be potential nest sites for squirrels, furbearers and birds.

Birds eat the seeds produced by cherry, ash, wild grape and hackberry trees. In the spring squirrels eat the soft green seeds produced by maples and in the fall they feast on the red dogwood berries. Deer relish the seed pods produced by honey locust trees, which are also beneficial because they fix nitrogen in the soil.

Eastern red cedars grow just about everywhere in Central Kentucky.

While they provide excellent winter cover for deer and rabbits, don’t allow stands to get extensive, or grow so thick that sunlight is blocked, preventing the growth of understory cover.

Winter is a good time to selectively thin small cedars. Pile up the cedars to make nesting cover for wild turkeys and rabbits.

Another option for using cedars to create food and nesting cover is hinge cutting, cutting a cedar tree trunk about halfway through, then pushing the tree over to the ground. This way you get the green tree on the ground, but it’s still alive.

Create Wildlife Openings

Many recreational properties are almost totally wooded.

On these lands, the challenge is to create openings to improve food availability for wildlife. The cold-weather months are the best time for this chainsaw work. It’s hot, sweaty labor during the summer months and you’ll have to deal with chiggers, ticks and mosquitos. In winter, when the leaves are down, there’s also a much clearer view of the forest canopy.

White Oak acorns (Photo from Flickr Commons)

Mature timber is necessary because big trees produce the most mast. But openings in the tree canopy are necessary too, because they recycle nutrients, and bring sunlight to the forest floor that creates food and covers for birds and mammals.

Open up the forest, making openings of about 1/4 acre or less. Avoid cutting oaks of any size since it takes 25 years for an oak tree to produce acorns. Haul off the firewood and clear away the limbs and branches from the opening. Pile them off to the side to create nesting cover for rabbits or wild turkeys.

Wildlife openings are ideal for wildlife observation, but they can also become great places to hunt deer and wild turkeys. If hunting is your goal, position the wildlife opening so that you can quietly approach it on a trail from downwind on a prevailing west-to-northwest wind.

This will keep your scent away from deer that come to feed in the opening at dawn or dusk. Position a treestand or ground blind on the east side of the opening and you’ll have the sun at your back in the morning.

Beneficial Crops

A wide variety of crops are beneficial to wildlife. Here are a few options:

White Dutch clover (Photo by Art Lander Jr.)

•  White clover is a good choice for planting in small food plots and wildlife openings.

The perennial is one of the most widely cultivated types of forage. Varieties are small, intermediate and large, according to height.

The term white clover is applied to the species in general. Dutch clover is often applied to small and intermediate varieties and ladino clover denotes larger varieties.

White clover is low-growing, and creates good ground cover. Its heads are whitish flowers, often with a tinge of pink or cream that may come on with the aging of the plant. The heads are generally 1/2 to 3/4 inches wide.

• Sunflowers are the best choice if your goal is to create a field for hunting mourning doves.

Select a flat open field of relatively high elevation. Power lines, dead trees, and other perches in or adjacent to the field are desirable. Ponds or streams nearby are important, too, as doves need to drink frequently.

Plant Peredovik sunflower seeds. This variety of black oil sunflowers produces seeds that are meatier and have higher oil content than other varieties and will attract both songbirds and doves.

Peredovik Sunflower (Photo from Bing images)

Germination time is five to seven days, under optimal conditions. The plants grow to a height of four to five feet and require at least eight hours of full sun for best results.

Sunflowers take 120 days to mature, so plant them in late April to early May so they’ll be ready for the September 1 opener. Plow and disk a seedbed then broadcast sunflower seeds at at rate of 15 pounds an acre. Cover seeds lightly with light disking.

Keep in mind that doves need ample bare ground to feed so keep some ground open on the edges of the field by frequent disking.

Mow down a few rows of sunflowers before opening day, and continue mowing strips every few weeks as long as you plan to hunt.

Sunflowers will attract bees and other pollinators.

• Plant milkweed seed in your flower plots to benefit monarch butterflies, an endangered species.

The monarch butterfly must have access to milkweed plants to complete their life cycle. Without them, they can’t survive.

So a habitat restoration program must include establishing and encouraging several species of milkweed plants, genus Asclepias.

There are nine species of milkweed plants native to Kentucky, with the most widely distributed and arguably most important, being the Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and the Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa).

Females lay eggs on milkweed plants, which are the food source for the caterpillars that emerge from the eggs. Then the caterpillars form a chrysalis where the pupa undergoes its transformation into an adult. Upon emergence, the adults consume nectar for fuel and begin the life cycle all over again.

• Winter wheat is a strain of wheat that’s planted in the fall. It creates a green field that offers food for deer, wild turkeys and other wildlife. The young plants remain in a vegetative phase during the winter and resume growth in early spring.

Winter wheat is a good cover crop that enriches the soil when plowed under in the spring.

It’s worth all the time, expense and effort to improve the habitat for wildlife.

The proof is when you call in a big, long-bearded gobbler during the spring wild turkey season, fill the freezer with prime cuts of venison, or know you’re helping songbirds and butterflies, whose habitat has been so degraded in recent decades, and populations have declined.

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