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Build Wildlife Habitat on Your Land

By Jodi Henke

When farmland is healthy, there is a balanced ecosystem with plenty of native plants and habitat for wildlife. This is called biodiversity, and all landowners can do something to improve it. 

Jo Ann Baumgarten is director of Wild Farm Alliance, an organization that promotes a healthy, viable agriculture through the protection and restoration of nature. She says when there’s a lot of biodiversity, the benefits are many.

“Farmers can attract pollinators that help pollinate their crops, and they can attract beneficial insects that help to control pest insects. There are beneficial birds that eat pest insects, weed seeds, and even rodents. Bats are eating insects, and four-footed creatures are eating rodents.”

Before you can make any adaptations to your land, however, you have to know what’s already there, says Baumgarten. Determine what’s working in your favor and what isn’t.

“First, you need to look at the climate, the drainage, and soil conditions. If there are problem areas like erosion and invasive species, they should be dealt with first. One of the best things to do is to go someplace wild nearby, look at what’s growing there, and then try to emulate that.”

Extension services, resource conservation districts, and other local groups can offer technical assistance and get you started. There are several agencies and organizations that have cost-share programs to help you pay for improvements.

Once everything’s in place, monitor the area to determine if your farm and the surrounding areas are benefiting from your efforts. 

Develop a Game Bird Preserve
Public hunting opportunities for game birds such as pheasant and quail are diminishing. Building a game bird preserve on your land could be a lucrative business since it’s getting harder and harder to find public hunting grounds. This is leading to an increased interest in private hunting preserves, and landowners are taking notice. 

Dan Burden is a value-added ag program coordinator with Iowa State University Extension. He’s also written a guide for game bird preserve business development.

Burden says the best candidates for this type of venture are those who enjoy people, dogs, and the outdoors, and who also have a strong background in bird hunting. 

Be sure to check your state’s requirements and regulations. It’s common to take cropland out of production and to designate the area as a preserve. However, Burden says to remember that the habitat you create is about cover for birds and dogs.

“The very simplest thing would be to just plant it to switchgrass or something similar,” he says. “What’s way better is to manage the property for wildlife with shelterbelts, cover, plantings, and food plots. That’s going to give you very nice, varied terrain to hunt.”

The game birds can be raised on your farm, but Burden says most preserve owners buy them from regional or national suppliers. Mature birds are kept in flight pens and then are released as needed.

Before you open the gates, decide how many people you will allow in a hunting party at any given time. Hold safety briefings and check certificates for hunter safety training. 

Growing your business depends on selling memberships and renewals. Burden says one tip for success is to cater more to the hunter’s dogs than the hunters themselves. 

“Good preserve operators will have water out in the fields, like kiddie wading pools, or they’ll have large pails of water out in the field just to make sure the dogs stay hydrated,” says Burden. “Early in the year that’s very important. Your good game preserve operators are going to really cater to the needs of the dog owner.”

Provide Wild Duck Habitat
One of the biggest challenges for wild ducks is finding suitable habitat. Ducks need grasslands and wetlands to successfully nest and raise their brood. Vital duck habitat is quickly disappearing in the U.S. Conservation efforts by landowners are the key for nesting waterfowl. 

Jennifer Kross, communications specialist with Ducks Unlimited, says, in general, ducks require two habitats during the breeding part of their life cycle: grasslands and wetlands. 

“They’re using the grasslands for nesting, and then when the ducklings hatch, they don’t stay in the nest very long. As soon as their feathers are dry, they go straight to a wetland,” says Kross. “That’s where they’re finding the seeds that they eat from the plants.

“They’re also eating all kinds of aquatic insects and bugs in those wetlands. They use that for feather growth and to develop so they can survive and migrate back south for the winter.”

Based on their nesting habitat preferences, ducks are grouped into three categories: overwater-nesting species, upland-nesting species, and cavity-nesting species. Some species will nest in more than one type of habitat. For example, mallard ducks mostly set up housekeeping in grassland cover, but they’re also known to use artificial nesting structures and even the occasional backyard flowerpot.

Kross says you can start providing duck habitat by managing grasses.

“Some farmers have a regimen where they’ll go in and hay it outside of the breeding time. They also do wetland restoration,” she says. “If you have an area where a wetland’s been drained a lot of times, you just plug that drain and let the water come in.”

Kross says there are federal programs and conservation organizations that offer technical and financial assistance to landowners for providing duck habitat.

Build a Brush Pile for Wildlife
Dead trees, branches, and brush on your property can be put to good use. Build a brush pile and create quality escapes and nesting covers for wildlife.

A huge brush pile in the field, a back corner of the yard, or along the edge of a timber can provide shelter and quality habitat needs for small animals and birds. 

Scott Shalaway is a wildlife biologist in West Virginia. He says it’s perfectly fine to toss your trees and other herbaceous materials in a heap and call it good. If you really want to cater to the critters, start with a foundation of concrete blocks and PVC pipe.

“That provides little tunnels and escape avenues for small mammals and reptiles,” says Shalaway. “Once you get the brush pile built, build a tic-tac-toe board arrangement of branches. Build that up maybe four or five layers high.”

After that, put a cover on the mound. Something as simple as an old sheet of plywood or a piece of sheet metal will prevent the pile from getting waterlogged in the rain, and it will offer extra protection in snow.

On top of the cover, add a few more logs and brushy material. 

Shalaway says you don’t have to build the pile all at once. Add to it as the materials become available.

The brush pile won’t decompose, but gravity will pull it down over time.

“It’s a good idea to get in the habit of, maybe once a year in the fall, gathering up material that has presented itself and adding that to the pile,” says Shalaway. “Bigger is better. You can’t make a brush pile too big. Add to it over time, and the bigger it is, the longer it will last.”

Evaluate the success of your brush pile simply by observing it. Early in the morning, watch for songbirds leaving. If predators are patrolling the area, you’ll see critters dashing inside to escape danger. When it snows, look for tracks around the perimeter.

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