Maximizing habitat quality will enhance wildlife production, and help you mitigate that other serious wildlife limiting factor – predation loss. Game bird populations are efficiently reduced by predators (it’s 80% or more of all mortality). The highest individual mortality happens during nesting and brood rearing (adults on nests, eggs and chicks). Winter is another time of trial, when the stark white countryside betrays every move and cover is scarce.
So, assess your habitat domain for weaknesses that avian or mammalian predators exploit. Remember that small, narrow habitats are predator-friendly – easily searched by skunks, raccoons and fox for nests or loafing birds. Turn the tables on nest predators by expanding and linking your smaller nesting covers together. Make several smaller fields into a single large one, and increase plant diversity and structure by adding flowering broadleaved plants attractive to insects that are important for young chicks. That confers the dual benefit of making it difficult for predators to search, and improving cover value for nesting and brood-rearing. Implement a prescribed fire program for these areas to keep the cover productive.
Plan for worst-case weather events and thwart avian predators by increasing woody winter cover depth with additional rows of dense evergreens and brushy snow catches. Add structure to adjacent roosting areas with stiff native grasses less likely to go flat in winter storms, like switchgrass (these areas also provide spring nesting cover). And put the winter food plot right alongside so they don’t have to travel for breakfast and expose themselves to predators and harsh weather. At the same time, make sure that daytime winter loafing areas are improved by adding brushy rows to shelterbelts or fence lines. Avoid supplemental feeding if you can (corn piles). It will just attract predators like raccoons that will stick around to snack on your nests next spring.
Wildlife move to find both food and shelter in all seasons, so broaden travel corridors to make them safe. If your field-line travel corridors are thin and ragged, or populated mostly with larger trees, reduce the predator perches by hinge-cutting the big stuff and fill in the gaps with brushy plantings several rows wide. Diversify your travel lanes by adding herbaceous components, such as clover strips that deliver brood rearing habitats and green browse for deer.
Finally, deny a home to the Fang and Talon Gang. Eliminate predator habitats and convert them to small game cover. We’ve already addressed tall trees above. Old buildings, rock piles and pushups of soil and downed timber provide denning areas for coyotes, fox and more. Reclaim that land – bury these areas and plant nesting cover over top. Last – go make friends with your local trapper and predator hunters. Give them access to take fur every year. Realize that Mother Nature hates a vacuum, and more ground nest predators will filter back in. But keeping the pressure on will provide a level of relief if you stick with it.
By Jim Wooley, Pheasants Forever Senior Wildlife Biologist (Emeritus)
Photo credit: Roger Hill