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Habitat Management - Reading Habitat


The diversity of wildlife found on any given tract of land is directly related to the amount and types of quality habitat found there. Wildlife lives in or visits specific areas because it finds something there it likes, or needs. Difference habitats vary in their ability to support wildlife, because of the specific habitat needs of different species. This may include obvious things such as food or water, or less obvious things such as nesting or escape cover. Since we will frequently explore land-habitat-wildlife relationships, it's probably a good idea to take a close look at what the word "habitat" means.

A definition for wildlife habitat could be: "The quality and total of all environmental factors such as food, water, cover and space, in the appropriate proportions, and interspersed within the proper locations, present and available upon a tract of land or in an area, for a given species to survive and reproduce." In other words, habitat is an area where an animal finds everything it needs to survive.

Satisfying the habitat needs of Pennsylvania's diverse wildlife community is largely dependent upon the needs of the species - or group of species - being targeted. Just imagine how large an area a black bear needs and compare it to the area a deer mouse needs. They are very different species with very different needs. In some cases, there may be overlap among various species' habitat requirements. , In other cases an animal may have unique habitat needs. Throughout the year, we will look at some of these overlaps as well as some critical limiting factors - factors that reduce a species' presence in a given area. We also will explore ways to improve habitat through plantings and manipulating vegetation structure.

This column aims to help educate and assist you, the landowner, wishing to increase his or her knowledge about wildlife habitat. It is meant to be a basic habitat guide, not a complete manual for cultivating wildlife habitat and making habitat improvements. We will use these columns to share ideas about habitat, to explain techniques used to change habitat, and a means to share and generate thoughts about managing lands and natural resources for wildlife. So sit back, keep an open mind, and let's get started!

"Reading" Habitat

A landowner who wants to change habitat within an existing area must first decide what it is they wish to accomplish. Does he or she have general goals in mind for the property, such as just wanting to see more birds at winter feeders, or more specific goals, such as wanting to provide better escape cover for rabbits, or food plots for deer? Before we grab that chainsaw or bag of seed and head out the door, let's talk about "reading" habitat.

Every parcel of land not smothered by concrete or asphalt in this state provides habitat. It may not meet the needs of many wildlife species, or it may have too much of this or that, but it does have some sort of existing feature that is beneficial to some species of wildlife. The habitat question then becomes, "How do we determine what habitat elements we have, and how can we make our property better?" As we touched upon earlier, there is much overlap when it comes to wildlife habitat needs, but there also are many specific needs. Examples of essential habitat elements for some species are existing pine, spruce, or hemlock stands with limbs reaching the ground that supply winter thermal cover, which is very important to many wildlife species during winter. Shrub areas produce a soft, edible mast, and escape and nesting cover. Grassy areas, such as forest clearings, fields, power- or pipe-lines, provide nesting and "bugging" areas for many birds. Wet areas provide water, as well as cooler temperatures to escape summer heat. These wet areas also provide cover, and, in the case of mountain spring seeps, exposed aquatic and semi-aquatic vegetation, even when deep snow blankets the forest floor. Some other important habitat elements include agricultural crop areas, multi-stemmed regenerating areas, such as cut-over areas; rock outcroppings; caves; mountain laurel stands; fruit trees; grapevines; and forested areas with snags and mature oak, beechnut, or cherry stands that provide tree cavities and fall foods.

We will explore these particular habitat "elements" in detail a little later. But what is important for now is being able to identify the various types of vegetation and vegetative structure that make up the habitat elements upon a particular tract.

Planning - Phase 1

As we define goals for our property, we can incorporate planning into the unfolding course of action. In the planning phase, which follows identifying existing habitat elements on your property, you develop a plan to improve overall habitat for a particular species, or species group. We can start by "reading" the existing habitat and recording our findings on paper. This provides a simple inventory of the property's major habitat elements and can be used to create a simple sketch or "habitat map" of your land. It does not have to be to any particular scale, and can be done freehand. You can even draw property lines on a copy of a topographical map and use that as your working copy.

To accomplish this, you must walk the property and look around. Note the location of the different types of vegetation and structure and start to identify it in on your "habitat map." You will be looking for and recording areas such as crop fields, hayfields, pasture, old fields, evergreen stands, grassy openings, shrub areas, existing wetlands, seeps, ponds, streams, mast-producing tree areas, laurel thickets, clear-cut or timbered areas, pipelines, gas wells, and roads. You also will want to note these "habitat types" on the edges of adjacent properties. You may not have any control over the habitat elements on your neighbor's property, but they can influence what you choose to do on your own ground . Your habitat map does not have to be elaborate, just a working sketch to help you inventory existing habitat elements. Just try and get a feel for the size and types of elements or vegetation present and draw it on your habitat map.

After you have created your "habitat map," it's time to begin identifying the relationship between species - or groups of species - and the habitat found on your land. It should become obvious that if your property is comprised totally of grasslands, it would not be practical to manage the area for a species that needs mast-producing hardwood trees.

Planning - Phase 2

This phase of the planning process requires some decision-making, and a little more research on your part. Now is when you must decide what your management objectives are, as this will determine the specific habitat elements needed, and what you ultimately do to manipulate the vegetation and structure on the property.

If you decide your objective is to create better rabbit habitat, then you first must determine the habitat needs of a rabbit, and compare those needs to the elements you have identified on your habitat map. You also must consider the home range requirements of your target species - or species group - and determine if your area is large enough, and if the effort you put forth will make your property more accommodating to the species you're targeting. It sounds complicated, but you need to determine if you can provide a missing or limited habitat need for the wildlife you hope to help. For example, if you wish to provide more habitat for rabbits, and your comparison of habitat needs and existing habitat elements determines your property needs more brushy areas, you can accomplish that through creating border- or edge-cuts. If your survey shows you have only mature timber with adjacent properties also comprised of mature timber, you may want to manage your property for a woodland species unless, of course, you are prepared to make some drastic changes.

The best advise here is to look at what the existing habitat supplies and decide what it is you're interested in doing. Remember, the choices can be dramatic or modest adjustments offering varying degrees of change that will enhance your property's ecological character and wildlife diversity or increase species-specific densities. You can be as creative and diverse as you'd like. After all, it is your property!

Sometimes it's best to improve upon habitat elements that exist on your land or help those species already found there. If you have rabbits and wild turkeys on the property, look closely at the habitat elements needed by these species and determine how to improve them, or create a habitat element for these species that is limited or not available on or adjacent to your property. Remember, your land does not have to contain every habitat need for the particular species, (it could supply only one) as long as its habitat needs can be found within a reasonable distance.

Of course, you may choose to do something more involved. The more land you own or control, the more options you typically have to consider. This change can be landscape-altering, expensive, labor-intensive, or all of the aforementioned. Your decision will hinge on your plans and desires, as well as your commitment and willingness to make the land suitable to the species you're trying to help, as well as yourself.

Once you have determined your wildlife and habitat objectives for the property, you are ready to begin manipulating or developing the habitat elements. We now go from the planning phase to the management phase.

Habitat Management

In this phase, we will discuss specific habitat management techniques that can be used to create or enhance habitat elements required by wildlife. Most of these techniques will be based upon cutting, planting, trimming, and enhancing vegetation to achieve specific goals. These techniques are not all-inclusive and are meant to provide basic information on management techniques currently used in the field by Land Management staff.

Technique 1 - Woodland or Edge Border-Cutting

This is one of the most beneficial land management habitat techniques conducted by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. This practice has taken place on State Game Lands for many years and has proven to be beneficial for many species.

Project Timeframe: Commonly practiced from January to March. Woodland border-cutting is most appropriately done during the plants' dormant season when leaves are absent from deciduous plants. Growth of tree and shrub sprouts following dormant season cuts is greater than growth from cuts made during the growing season.

Targeted Wildlife Species: Those species requiring brushy, low-growing, dense plant growth for escape cover, loafing, nesting cover, and feeding areas. This technique is beneficial to species such as rabbits, pheasants, grouse, songbirds, and woodcock. White-tailed deer and wild turkeys also will benefit from this technique. Many wildlife species are creatures of the edge. Edge is a zone where two different types of habitat join and create a change in "vegetative structure." Wildlife benefits from an adequate amount of edges in its environment, but edges could cause an increase in predation if this type of habitat is limited in the area. A border-cut provides two edges for wildlife - the edge between the cut and uncut portion of the woodlot and the edge between the field and the border-cut. In effect, a new edge is created and an existing edge improved. Both can add to the carrying capacity of an area. It is common for many species of wildlife to spend most of their time in or near an edge. More game is seen near the edge of a field or woodlot than in the middle of forests or fields. Border-cuttings add habitat diversity to an area, and diversity usually increases the wildlife species found in that area.

Guidelines: Pole-stage, mature and near-mature trees along field edges, food plots, log landings, and woodland clearings compete with low-growing plants for sunlight, water and nutrients. Smaller plants often are unable to compete, so they disappear or are materially reduced in number. Cutting larger trees and shrubs along an opening border permits sunlight to penetrate to ground level. This stimulates low-growing plants, certain weeds and grasses to grow vigorously for several years. The cover provided by this heavy growth is quickly accepted by many wildlife species, and provides an additional stage of higher cover between a field and woods. Where food-plots or field borders are cut, crop yields may be increase since these border trees produce shade and compete with crops for nutrients and water.

While the mechanics of making the cut can vary from one woodland border to another, a cut should be 30 to 100 feet wide. You may wish to cut the southern edge deeper than 30 feet to allow sunlight to reach over the adjoining woods. The length can vary but the longer the cut, the more effective it is likely to be. Most vegetation within this 30-foot or larger "cut zone" should be brought down. Food-producing trees and shrubs, such as sumac, hawthorn, flowering dogwood, juneberry, witch hazel, apple, persimmon, hickory, walnut, or butternut generally should not be cut except where thinning is necessary. Fruit crops usually increase on such trees because of reduced competition for sunlight and nutrients. Vines, such as wild grape, Virginia creeper, and bittersweet should be left uncut unless they tend to dominate the site. They will usually be invigorated by removal of competing plants and grow profusely after cutting.

The cutting of large sumac trees results in heavy sprout growth relished by cottontails as winter food. Sumac fruit is eaten by birds and mammals, so a few fruit-bearing sumacs should be left uncut. Blackberry and frequently red raspberry and black raspberry plants may be expected to show up in the border-cut within a short time after cutting. These plants provide food and cover for many wildlife species.

Slash (tops and stems) should be left in the border. It will furnish immediate cover for resident wildlife and will serve as food for some species. Deer and rabbits will browse on the buds, bark, and twigs of the fallen tops. The slash will persist until new growth furnishes living food and cover. There is no best method for handling the trees and branches in a border-cut, except to fell them in the same direction, and keep working away from the cut area. Slash that lay in long windrows parallel to the woodland edge is likely to furnish more acceptable cover than separated piles within the border. This certainly applies during the very early stages of plant succession following a cut.

As living ground cover in the cut increases, the importance of slash decreases. Living food and cover plants are important because the slash deteriorates quickly. If quite a bit of slash results from a cut, it may be necessary for safety, to keep it out of the way of the cutter.

Re-cutting: It is desirable to re-cut a border every seven to 10 years. This depends on the kinds of trees in the border. If they are fast-growing species, such as aspen or sumac, it may be desirable to re-cut sooner than if the border trees and resulting sprouts are slower-growing hardwood varieties. There is no hard-and-fast rule governing the time interval between cuttings. This interval depends on the variety of trees in the border and other variables affecting their regrowth. These variables include soil fertility and, possibly, the direction a site faces. Some trees do better in sunlight, others in shade. The proper time to re-cut is whenever the border ceases to furnish adequate food and cover for wildlife, or begins to shade the food plot.

The critical period for resident wildlife is winter. In winter plant growth has stopped, grasses and weeds that furnished cover during the growing season have withered. The fields are quite barren. Leaves have fallen from deciduous trees and shrubs. The forest floor under these trees and shrubs supports little cover for wildlife. The brushy cover of a border-cut is especially valuable at this time, and food present may provide wildlife with sufficient energy to make it safely through the lean winter months. These brushy areas also will provide protective areas for nesting, as well as place to make a quick jump to safety when wildlife begins using the adjoining food plots in the spring.

Costs and Procedures: The cost of woodland border-cutting varies with tree species and the size of the trees. Mature trees overhanging fields require the use of equipment and added time for handling, which increases the total cost of the operation. Moving and piling limbs from cut trees also adds to the time required for a border-cut and increases labor costs. Once the initial cut is completed, the cost to re-cut is drastically reduced, because of the size of the vegetation involved.

As a safety measure, it is desirable to have at least two people assist during the actual cutting. In the handling of smaller trees, two people can do the work much faster than one. While one operates the saw, the other guides falling trees so that they drop parallel to the woods edge, out of the way of the saw operator. The use of a "push-pole" is helpful and can add to the overall safety of the team. Two men can exchange jobs from time to time to improve safety. When dealing with large trees, it is good to have two saw operators who can spell one another. A tired man using a chainsaw increases his chances to have an accident. If an accident occurs, it's always better to have help at hand. It is highly recommended for cutters to attend a chain-saw safety course, or seek experienced help to accomplish the border cut especially if dealing with large trees.

Summary: Woodland border-cutting will usually yield results within a year or two. There is much flexibility or variation that can be applied to woodlots or woodlot border cuttings such as cutting one field edge each year, or connecting fields through edge cuttings. Variation is an advantage since it permits us to exercise some individuality in treatment of the forest border to achieve our own wildlife management goals. When a border-cut is used in conjunction with planting soft mast-producing shrubs along the northern edge, and seeding the food-plot with a good wildlife mix, (we will discuss both techniques in detail in upcoming columns) it will produce a winning wildlife combination.

No portlets in this column.
Pennsylvania Game Commission, 2001 Elmerton Ave, Harrisburg Pennsylvania 17110-9797