Brushing Up For Winter


Depending on where it’s growing, brush comes in just two flavors — good and bad. Provide excellent winter habitat for upland birds by planning out your woody cover

By Jim Wooley, Senior Field Biologist (Emeritus) at Pheasants Forever

An old farmer friend recently told me he hadn’t seen a “heller” like this past winter since the 1940s, and that’s a while back. As he recounted all the infamous wildlife-killing winters of his 90 years, I considered the lessons from this past one.

Mother Nature isn’t predictable. Habitat is wildlife’s only salvation. Winter cover must be created years in advance. This year, pheasants and quail died where harsh weather wasn’t planned for long ago. Where birds survived, protective shrub thickets and brushy corridors saved their bacon.

Depending on where it’s growing, brush comes in just two flavors — good and bad. Many non-native shrubs introduced decades ago (Russian/autumn olives, honeysuckles, multiflora rose) have gone rogue, crowding out grasslands and woodland understories. Even some native woody plants are highly invasive when uncontrolled (e.g. eastern red cedar). Attack invaders before you plant the good stuff.

Removing invasive brush is hard work, but you rejuvenate habitat while making way for beneficial shrubs. Mowing or cutting brush without chemical treatment isn’t effective. Combining eradication methods — basal bark spraying, cutting and treating stumps, foliar spraying (glyphosate and triclopyr are common chemicals) with prescribed burning — yields better results. Continuing maintenance is essential for keeping invaders at bay.

Native shrub corridors are the arteries linking your habitats — perfect for wildlife travel and protection. Add nearby food plots, native grasses for roosting, and discrete woody plantings (farmstead/livestock shelterbelts, odd area thickets), and you’ve created a winter haven safe from both predators and weather.

Shrub corridors create “edge” on the landscape: that hot intersection wildlife loves, where habitats merge and diversify. And it’s much more than just winter cover. Summer shade, screening and escape cover, loafing/sunning areas, travel lanes, songbird nesting substrates, native foods (berries, mast, browse) and insect foraging areas are additional benefits of brush.

Consider what, where and how to plant, and site preparation. Put fast-growing native shrubs (dogwoods, wild plum, elderberry, ninebark, chokecherry, aronia, nannyberry) first on your list. Beside them plant shrubs that grow a bit slower like hazelnut, highbush cranberry, juneberry, arrowwood, buttonbush and red cedar.

Think beefy. Plan for 5 to 9 shrub rows in corridors that divide the land along draws, streams, wetlands, timber borders and fencerows.

Prep shrub planting sites in late summer and fall. Disk or rotovate planting corridors to eliminate grassy competition. Grass will fight back from root systems, so disk again just before freeze-up. Chemical site prep may be faster. Mow cool season vegetation in early fall, then spray the regrowth (by hand, ATV or tractor) with a burn-down herbicide.

After spring planting, use fabric weed barrier or wood chip mulch around your shrubs. Herbicides can also be used (carefully) over several years to suppress grasses, ensuring your shrubs will thrive.

Plan your woody cover improvements right now, before last winter’s memory fades. Your wildlife will appreciate it when the next “heller” arrives.

Photo Credit: Chip Laughton (quail)