Farm Progress

How to attract wildlife to your woodlands

Tree Talk: Here’s what you can do to make your woods a happy place for deer, turkeys and more.

Fredric Miller

October 19, 2017

3 Min Read
sunshine in forest

As late fall and early winter approach, it’s a great time to consider improving your land for wildlife. Think about deer and turkeys, in particular.

Poorly managed forests have typically been neglected and contain overmature trees with a closed canopy and a midstory of maples, ironwood, beech and other shade-tolerant species. Oak regeneration is minimal. These stands may also have been high-graded or overharvested with poorly formed trees and less desirable species left behind. Secondary regrowth usually includes sweetgum, boxelder and ash. In some cases, these stands may be overrun with invasive plant species.

In contrast, a well-managed forest contains healthy trees with well-formed canopies that provide good mast (i.e., nuts and acorns) production. They contain a diverse mixture of tree species with an understory of mostly native species. In addition, there is adequate light penetration to the canopy floor, allowing for native herbaceous plants and woody shrubs. Healthy forests are also much more resilient and have saplings and advanced seedlings of desirable species, which facilitates a quicker rebound following harvesting, storm damage, or insect and disease outbreaks.

What can your woods do?
So, more specifically, how does a healthy forest benefit wildlife and provide wildlife habitat? First, it provides an abundance of food sources, including soft and hard mast, browse, and herbaceous forage. Deer and turkeys rely heavily on acorns for food.

Second, a more open forest canopy provides native herbaceous and woody shrubs for a more diverse diet, cover, den sites and habitat. For example, National Wild Turkey Federation biologists have found turkeys thrive in well-managed forests with a more open canopy containing native understory vegetation. Forest practices of prescribed fire, thinning and eliminating invasive species can be highly beneficial for turkeys.

Third, crop tree release treatments help give desirable trees an edge over the competition and allow for better seedling and nut production.

When it comes to management, there are no one-size-fits-all situations. Less desirable species such as persimmon and serviceberry, normally cut during timber stand improvement, might be good for wildlife. Leaving den trees and/or snags by girdling larger trees instead of felling them can provide habitat for animals. While grapevines can be a pain, leaving a few provides a very beneficial summer food source.

The downside
There are also trade-offs between forest and wildlife management. Higher deer populations may impact oak seedling regeneration due to increased browsing, which allows for less desirable species to get a leg up. In some cases, reducing the deer herd may be needed to reach your long-term management goals. Unfortunately, invasive species are not at the top of a deer’s menu, so woodlands with heavy invasive plant populations my force deer to browse on native plants and tree seedlings, possibly changing the entire future makeup of your forest.

Understand that transforming a poorly managed forest into a healthy forest will take time, but it can be worthwhile and provide long-lasting benefits. The key is to find a balance between forest management and wildlife management practices.  

Information for this article was provided by Chis Evans, University of Illinois Extension forester. Miller is a horticulture professor at Joliet Junior College and a senior research scientist in entomology at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill. Email your tree questions to him at [email protected].

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