By Jim Wooley, Pheasants Forever Senior Field Biologist (Emeritus)
Folks who acquire land for upland bird hunting often have a secondary motive, and usually that’s white-tailed deer. We regularly discuss strategies here to increase your bird numbers. Here’s how to put a little deer spin into your habitat enhancement program.
Like most wildlife, whitetails prefer a habitat smorgasbord with sunshine. This means that gangbuster gamebird cover in relatively open country works well. Odds for harvesting your wall-hanger (or my personal trophy – a yearling doe) increase as you diversify bird habitat.
Here’s a little planning trick to figure improvements for your target species: Consider home range along with habitat needs. Pheasant and quail home ranges are small. Deer can be roamers, but will stick closer when their needs are met nearby.
Depending on its size, divide your acreage’s map into equal rectangles (40-acre plots are ideal) and examine the habitat mosaic in each. What’s lacking for roosting, woody, nesting and brood-rearing habitats, and wildlife food? Does connecting cover extend between grids? With a habitat visual of each block, and ground-truthing, you can formulate a plan that, grid-by-grid, will lead to better bird and deer habitat on the property.
Pheasants and whitetails both benefit with 65 to 75 percent of acres established in early successional herbaceous habitat. Pollinator, legume or native grass/forb nesting and brood habitat all double well as bedding and fawning cover for deer, and as green browse. Broadleaves host high insect numbers for growing gamebird chicks. Maintaining a mostly bare understory with fire is important so that foraging chicks – and fawns – can move easily. Plant these areas as whole fields, firebreaks, or borders along landscape features.
In this era of antler obsession, you may also want to consider screening cover in your habitat plan. Concealing cover for deer (switchgrass is a good example) also serves as gamebird roosting cover in cold weather.
While open country suits deer just fine, beefy shrubs improve holding power. Diverse shrubs (dogwoods, ninebark, plum) several rows wide should comprise 15 to 20 percent of your cover. Shrubs serve as security habitat with vertical and horizontal protection, travel lanes, covey headquarters, loafing and escape cover … and woody cover also hides bucks from prying eyes. Add deeper brush thickets in odd areas and at the heads of draws, and widen spots along fully brushed-in fencerows.
Install food plots on 10 to 20 percent of your acres. High-energy grain crops improve gamebird body condition and hold deer nearby. Food plots belong near bedding and roosting cover.
Cover interspersion – how your habitat features merge and link – matter. Fencerows, waterways and draws should connect to each other and your other habitats. This boosts edge, which equals more birds and deer … a result that makes most landowner/hunters happy.
Photo credit: Tom Koerner/USFWS