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Managing Woodlands For Wildlife For more nature habitat information Visit these helpful websites:

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oday, many nature-loving home-owners are trying to protect and enjoy some of our rapidly-vanishing wildlife habitat by buying properties which include woodlots. Some may even purchase larger tracts of land with more extensive forested areas. Very often, and with the best of intentions, these landowners declare that they are going to leave the woods untouched, “for the sake of wildlife." Although their intentions are good, they don’t necessarily represent the best approach for maximizing plant, animal, and bird diversity on a piece of woodland property. This is one of those instances where the “good news" and the “bad news" are the same: one size doesn’t fit all. Each property will have different “site factors," including variations in soil, moisture, sunlight, existing vegetation, and local wildlife. That makes it impossible to recommend the same practices for every property. In addition, different approaches are needed to

Just as you would make a plan for the rest of your landscape, you should also study your wooded areas in terms of what management techniques you can use to reach your wildlife goals.

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attract specific species to a given area. On the plus side, however, this means that you have the opportunity to think carefully about what you ultimately hope to accomplish, and then formulate a specific plan to be implemented in stages, as time and money allow. You should study your property as it relates to the Law of Minimums, which declares that, when a factor approaches its minimum, its relative effect becomes increasingly great. In other words, whatever you are most lacking may have the greatest impact, and you can take steps to enhance that missing element. All species of wildlife require food, water, cover and space. With thoughtful management, you can ensure that your woodland provides the maximum of each. Plants should supply a variety of food types, ripening at different times. Blackberry and cherry are favored by 56 species of birds and animals, and are available during the summer and fall. Oak is a delicacy for 43 species, and can provide nourishment in the spring and winter. Rotting logs attract insects, an important food source for many species, and rock piles are havens for the reptiles and amphibians that feed carnivorous birds and mammals. A water source doesn’t have to be a large pond or a flowing stream. Perhaps on your © WindStar Wildlife Institute

property you have spring seeps which will run quietly all winter, or vernal pools which supply critical habitat before drying up in the summer. Whatever your water resources, they should be valued and carefully protected for wildlife. Cover can be anything from a brush pile to a stone wall, a hole in a tree to a rotting log. All types of vegetation, from herbaceous openings to shrubs and mature trees, can be used for nesting and escape cover, depending on the species of wildlife. Don’t overlook the importance of evergreens, which provide critical protection in the winter, as well as food when supplies are scarce.

those species which require mixed vegetation. Wild turkeys, for instance, look for grasses and insects in open clearings in the spring and summer, and nuts and berries in mature forests in the fall and winter. The first thing to consider is the overall health of your forest, regardless of its size. Many of us, in response to the dismaying loss of woodlands due to industrial and development pressures, have come to think of every tree as sacred. We look at the cutting of a single trunk as an act akin to murder, and take the unbending viewpoint that “more is better." In some cases, we might literally be loving our trees to death.

Tree cavities can exist in both living and dead trunks, and ideally there will be a variety of sizes, at different heights, throughout the woods.

“Save the old growth forests" has become a rallying cry, and in some parts of the country it may be valid.

We can’t always control the amount of space that we can provide, but many species don’t require a lot of acreage. For those that do, perhaps you can get neighbors with adjoining properties to work with you to create a larger habitat. This may be particularly valuable for

Certain parts of our nation contain ancient stands of trees which should be revered and protected from those who would harvest them strictly for financial gain. Sadly, for most of us, the trees on our own properties don’t fall into that category.

Conservation can be defined as the wise use of our natural environment: it is, in the final analysis, the highest form of national thrift – the prevention of waste and despoilment while preserving, improving, and renewing the quality and usefulness of all our resources. – President John F. Kennedy

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On the east coast, for instance, there was almost no forest left by the late 1850’s, after the combined forces of farming, and the ability of steam engines to move timber for financial gain, cleared the land of trees. Thus, our mature eastern forests today are not original, and, more importantly, they are all about the same age.

shrubs and brambles, which are in turn overshadowed by shadeintolerant tree species. These would include pines, cherry, birch, and yellow poplar, trees which you generally find growing in open areas or along the edges of established woodlands, where they can grab enough sunlight to survive. The final stage sees the dominance of hardwoods, including oaks, sugar maples, and beeches. The entire process takes about a century when nature is left to mature on its own.

While some species of wildlife do need mature forests to provide habitat, many others require younger, secondary growth forests, or low-growing open spaces, and these are in short supply.

In addition to the loss of plant diversity, the problem with having the majority of our forests reach maturity at the same time is that we no longer have the other stages – the prairies, shrubby areas, and shade-intolerant trees – available for those wildlife species which require them for survival.

To understand the crisis, it is necessary to think about the workings of forest ecology. You might be familiar with the term “forest succession." This simply describes the normal process whereby nature, when not interfered with by humans or natural disasters, follows a constant and distinct pattern of regeneration.

The answer isn’t to cut down all of our mature trees and start over, but rather to become aware of the problem and take reasonable measures

Starting with cleared land, the first plants to appear are grasses and herbaceous perennials. These are followed by

to provide habitat for a greater variety of plants and animals. To rearrange a common saying, too often we fail to see the trees for the forest. Take a walk on your own property and study specifics, rather than just looking at the overall “woods." Take along a notebook and some plant identification guides if you are not yet familiar with what grows there. Is there a predominance of just one or two species of trees. Do the trees have space to grow, with full crowns of leaves in the top canopy of the woods, or are the trunks too close together and the leaf crowns crowded and suppressed. Are there hardwood seedlings growing with enough light to nurture them. Oak seedlings, for example, will only grow in sunlight, so a solid canopy of shade means that there will be no younger oaks coming along to replace the older ones which die in the future. If you notice a lot of stumps, or double trunks (resulting from cutting and resprouting), you can assume that your woods were logged in the past. What about the “understory" plants, those perennials and shrubs which should exist at different heights underneath the taller trees. Are there any. What types are thriving, and is there a variety of species.




Often today the understory vanishes, due to lack of

Forest Stratification

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sunlight or deer browsing, or becomes a “monoculture," consisting of only one species. Spicebush is a nice shrub, for instance, and provides good crops of berries, but on its own certainly can’t sustain the variety of wildlife that you’d like to encourage. This is the time when you have to start to make some difficult decisions. You may love each and every individual tree, but would careful and thoughtful thinning of the woods be better for the health of the whole ecosystem. Would removing some trunks open up the canopy and let in more light, thus encouraging seedlings to grow, and letting more diverse understory plants develop. Would the cutting back of a shrub species that has crowded out most other kinds of plants allow for more variety of wildlife food and nesting options. If your woodland is large enough (generally at least 10 acres), it might be financially rewarding for you to have a commercial logger do the

The health of our forests and the ability of future generations to enjoy the full array of forest wildlife depend on a balanced approach to forest management and forest wildlife conservation. – Ruffed Grouse Society

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thinning, paying you for the wood that he removes. In that case, it is highly recommended that you hire a consultant forester who will come in and mark the appropriate trees to be harvested, working towards your goal of improving woodland diversity and wildlife habitat. Unlike some commercial enterprises, your forester won’t be targeting just the largest, most valuable trees. He or she will put the job proposal out for bids, and will do the negotiating and follow-through with the logger, making sure that the remaining forest is left as undamaged as possible. If you are planning extensive improvements to your property, selling some of the lumber which is overcrowded might be a way to finance your other plans, while improving habitat at the same time. How do you decide what changes, if any, to make in your woodland. Your first step, after studying your property, should be to think about what wildlife you want to encourage. Even if you are mainly interested in one specialty, such as birds, there are still choices to be made. Some species need large, unfragmented tracts of woods. While most of us can’t provide the 100 or 1000 acres of forest needed by these species for survival, we might successfully attract “interior dwellers." Those birds need mature forests with high canopies and as little “edge" (that area where woodland meets field) as possible. Page 4

Other species are “edge dwellers," thriving in the shelter of shrubs and small trees on the fringe of the woods, and making use of nearby grasses to find insects and seeds. Another group of birds, notably game birds like woodcock and grouse, depends on open areas bordered by fairly dense, low, shrubby vegetation in which they can hide from predators. The same diversity in habitat requirements applies to other types of wildlife, so establishing priorities may be necessary. If you have some open areas, you might let a portion grow up naturally, allowing the grasses to get tall enough to provide good habitat. If this area comes abruptly up to the woods, consider either cutting down some of the trees along the outer edge of the woodland and letting nature replace them with shrubs and seedlings; or speed up the succession process by planting them yourself along the edge of the forested area. Having a “soft" layered edge, with a gradual blending of grasses into shrubs and then into trees, is nature’s way of growing, and usually will attract the greatest diversity of plants and wildlife. If you are still hesitant to make changes in your forest, remember that humans really don’t manage wildlife, they manage habitat. Species will come – or stay and reproduce – in response to appropriate food, water, cover, A Plant's Home

space, and the arrangement of these components.

better than “benign neglect" when it comes to promoting wildlife diversity.

In addition, humans aren’t the only forces causing change. Browsing deer, when overabundant, can remove a forest understory; insects, such as gypsy moths, can defoliate large areas of canopy cover, thus changing the amount of available light; beavers alter water levels; and disease can nearly wipe out entire populations of trees, such as occurred with chestnuts and elms in this country. We humans are the only creatures who can plan changes with a view to the greater good, and sometimes thoughtful activism can be

There is a lot of concern today about “riparian buffers." These are the woodlands which border a stream or other source of water, where the forest soil and mat of tree roots are crucial for filtering out pollutants before they enter the water supply. The trees also shade the water, keeping it cool enough for certain aquatic species. In many cases, these buffers have become very narrow or have disappeared altogether. In some states, there is money available to help you restore or create riparian buffers.


Cooperative Extension Service (to find an office in your state):


Forestry and Wildlife Education site:


USDA Forest Service: download the NED Forest Stewardship Planning Guide at:

If you have a stream running through your property, perhaps you can encourage your neighbors to join you in protecting the health of that waterway by planting trees and protecting any woodlands that already exist. Stewardship of the land is a responsibility, but it is also a joy, and there is no better learning experience for both children and adults. Look at your property with an eye to management, and you will reap the rewards for years to come, as well as having the satisfaction of knowing you are helping to sustain nature’s diversity for future generations.

This article was written by Maryland Master Wildlife Habitat Naturalist Cathy Gilleland. For more information or for the name of a Master Wildlife Habitat Naturalist in your area, please contact: WindStar Wildlife Institute



Your State Department of Natural Resources: (other states can be found with a web search) Your local Farm Service Agency (to locate an office in your state):


Natural Resources Conservation Service: http://


Penn State (lots of information to order on forest management):

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WindStar Wildlife Institute is a national, non-profit, conservation organization whose mission is to help individuals and families establish or improve the wildlife habitat on their properties.

A Plant's Home

Managing Woodlands For Wildlife  

Today, many nature-loving home-owners are trying to protect and enjoy some of our rapidly-vanishing wildlife habitat by buying properties hi...

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