In 1985, when I became an outdoor editor for Winston-Salem magazine, publisher Joe Doster told me I didn’t have to “know everything” about hunting and fishing to do a good job.
He knew I liked hunting and fishing, but he thought I wasn’t an expert.
“Just get to know the people who know everything,” he said. I took it seriously and tried for the next 21 years to pick out the brains of every good wildlife biologist or fisherman who managed to get his phone numbers. I learned literally at the feet of some of North Carolina’s best biologists: deer Scott Osborne, turkey man Mike Semester, little game man Terry Sharp, and “fish heads” like Fred Harris, Joe Mickey, Scott Van Horn, David Yu, Ken Hodges .
They gave me a basic understanding of what makes game animals, game birds and game fish grow and thrive.
A group of people outdoors had the same kind of opportunity, condensed into two hours, when Missouri biologist Nick Brugg, chief biologist for the Quail and Wildlife Federation, stood behind the podium and taught the basics of improving wildlife habitats to members of the Yadkin Wildlife Federation. Into the Valley – Tips he said works anywhere from the Carolinas to Kansas to Wyoming and Montana.
Perhaps the reason for the improvement of wildlife habitat has been the fastest growing part of hunting over the past 10 years. Deer quality management is clearly a close second, but the two are often intertwined.
Across the country, hunters are discovering that if they can improve where whitetails and wild turkeys live on hunting contracts or farms, they will end up with more of them—and hopefully higher quality animals.
“Home is simple,” said Brough. “It’s food, water and cover. You don’t have to have a (biology) degree to build a habitat; you just have to have the desire. If you have an electric saw and a little gas chainsaw, maybe a UTV (utility vehicle) and a little gas, you can do habitat work” .
In his profession, Prough works with large and small landowners, trying to help them make their forests and fields more attractive to wildlife. It might only work on a quarter acre of wildlife wood, maybe just an acre-sized piece of food, and maybe just improve on the little bits here and there.
But it all adds up. There might be an extra quail coffe in a year or two, or another couple of hen turkeys might be nesting there and hanging out, and the white-tailed might find a reason to make this little piece of heaven the most used part of their 2,000-acre range.
Water is essential, Brogg said. Very few royals do not have enough water to quench the thirst of a large white-tailed fox. And the food? He said that food is not a limiting factor for most characteristics. Food plots—a big problem among a lot of people outdoors these days—may be something that attracts more deer and turkeys—but they won’t be something that is the difference between success and failure.
Cover is number 1
He said the key was the cap. Where can birds and animals nest, breed and hide when they need to? In nesting cover, brood cover and escape cover. And it is fairly easy to provide, even with the simplest tools.
Nesting cover for quails, turkeys, rabbits and even deer overgrown, grassy areas, especially those with grasses such as bluestem and timothy. It is where a group of eggs can be hidden from the nests of predators such as skunks, opossums, raccoons and snakes. A turkey kicked a chicken out of its nest two years ago in May – it was in an overgrown field, from which cattle had been removed a year earlier. She and her nest were completely hidden, and if I hadn’t nearly walked in on her, I’d never know.
A brood cover is created by shearing and scraping – Prough calls it “disturbing”.
“The key is turbulence,” he said. “We need to teach the landowners to do some upheaval, then put some seed, and God will do the rest. You get some weeds—foxtail and ragweed—and you will have the right habitat.”
Prough said that unkempt “edges” are where two types of habitat meet – for example, woods and field – are potential areas where birds and animals can raise their brooders, safe from many airborne and land-borne predators. He suggested cutting 8- to 10- to 15-foot-wide strips across large fields to provide places where small birds and animals could hunt seeds, insects, and emerging greenery.
Not straight tape. “Deer don’t walk in a straight line,” he said. “I don’t mow in a straight line.”
Prough will also run a disk over those areas to break them up and encourage the natural growth of grass cover. And there is no need for the great John Deere; Outdoors folks with access to a UTV or ATV can attach a small set of discs and get the job done. My son and I have planted a 6-acre pigeon field, two of the past three summers with bush pigeon and an ATV with disc.
chop and drop
As far as escape cover, think of where a pair of quail or turkey hens might lead their brooder to safety from domestic red-tailed hawks or wolves.
Think deeply. This is where a saw comes in handy. Prough called his technique “slash and drop” or “slash, drop and drag.”
He likes to drop “unwanted” trees along the edges of the field and even back into the forest to create natural brush piles that protect birds and animals. He might drop several trees in an area, tie a string around their stumps and into his ATV and pull them together to make a huge brush pile—or lay them end-to-end along the edge of a field to make a large horizontal piece of cover that wildlife can use.
“I like to use the hinge pieces,” Brogg said. “I like to cut down about three-quarters of the tree, about thigh or waist height, and let it fall on its own. This is a growing brush pile. Deer love bedding under and behind deciduous trees. You can create bedding areas by dropping trees.”
“Deer loafer. They have nowhere to go and all day to get there – same with turkeys. You put a half-moon of fallen trees along the edge of the field, and you’ll have deer bed there.”
Prough also possesses another less-than-secret weapon. He calls it “Unlocking Wildlife”. He’ll go to a wooden platform and take out a small hole – often as small as a quarter of an acre. He tries not to cut down any valuable trees: oaks or pines. What he wants to do is create an opening where the canopy has been removed and the sun can reach the ground. You don’t even have to make a mess; Sunlight and photosynthesis will take over from there, with all kinds of greenery growing almost immediately, providing food and cover for wildlife within weeks of a chainsaw’s job.
Improving wildlife habitats is often a matter of trial and error, Prague said. Don’t be afraid to try to create a better cover, and if it works, imitate your efforts elsewhere. If you can improve habitat in two or three areas on your hunting property next year, you can do two or three more areas the following year.
He said that some of your efforts will be unsuccessful. “There is no such thing as a silver bullet. There are a lot of YouTube biologists. They went to YouTube University. There are some good things, and you can see what guys are trying, but YouTube is full of silver bullets.”
He said that placing the blocks (where legal) is a great way to help improve the quality of dollars in your deer herd, but nowhere near as important as letting small ones walk.
“I put my minerals outside for good trail pecs,” he said. “Most deer crave minerals and will come and visit every two or three days.”
Last but not least, don’t “turn over” any land during the winter. This is the time when game birds and wildlife need cover and food – and the time when predators are on the hunt. Wait until spring when everything is green and more food and cover will grow.
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