Good grass, bad grass

Grassy fields, tucked-away meadows, waterway buffer strips and other open areas serve as important components of wildlife habitat. 

Wild turkeys need openings for feeding and brood-rearing, and grassy habitat produces abundant insects that serve as protein-rich forage for poults. White-tailed deer readily use prairie-type habitat for fawn-rearing in spring and summer and for bedding at any time of year. Many songbirds require grassy meadows. And for gamebirds such a bobwhite quail and ring-necked pheasants, grass is essential.

But not all grasses are created equal. Most nonnative grasses, many of which were introduced as livestock forage, don’t provide value to wildlife. Native grasses, the ones that North American wildlife evolved with, are almost always better. Anyone managing land for wildlife needs to understand more about native grasses and how to encourage them on the landscape.

“Warm-season grasses tolerate and do well in hot summers,” said Donnie Buckland, NWTF grasslands and agricultural manager. “Depending on site conditions, warm-season grasses exhibit vigorous growth from mid- to late-spring through summer and into early fall. They usually turn brown and go dormant in winter.

“Cool-season grasses have their main growth in the cool months of fall and spring, with minimal growth in the heat of the summer. These grasses go dormant and turn brown in cold winter areas where the soil freezes. Many are sod-forming grasses such as fescue, Bermuda and Bahia,” that are not native to North America. 

“Many of the nonnative grasses offer little food value to wildlife,” Buckland said. “They produce a dense carpet that makes it difficult for small animals and young ground-nesting birds to navigate through the stand.”

On the other hand, Buckland said, “Native warm-season grasses are bunch grasses. It is much easier for smaller animals and birds to meander through the many travel corridors within these grasses at ground level. This is especially important for quail and pheasant chicks and wild turkey poults.”

Buckland explained that the bunch grass structure of these native grasses creates excellent brooding areas for young birds that depend on insects for the first few weeks of their lives. First, it provides an insect-rich environment with easy foraging on small patches of bare ground. Next, it provides adequate overhead protection from avian predators.

Invasive grasses compete with, and often overcome, native vegetation. Examples include Japanese stiltgrass, cogon grass, cheatgrass, reed canary, brome and many others. Get rid of them and then replant with native grasses. 

Here is a starter list of excellent native grasses for wildlife: big and little bluestem; Indiangrass; switchgrass; buffalograss; eastern gamagrass; sideoats grama and blue grama grass; and needlegrass.

“Seeds from these native plants still exist in the soil seed bank and can frequently be encouraged to reappear with the proper management and elimination of less desirable vegetation,” Buckland said. But your best bet for establishing a stand is to plant anew. 

“Site preparation depends on the current condition of the site and may require mowing, herbicides, prescribed burning or tillage, or a combination of these techniques,” Buckland said. “Planting procedures vary with current condition and the past history of the site.” 

Contact your local NWTF biologist for help. Find the right resource by clicking on your state at www.nwtf.org/about/nation. 

Once a stand of grass is established, it needs maintenance. Cattle grazing and prescribed fire serve in this role — bison and wildfire started by lightning are nature’s parallels — but mowing is important, too. Your local NWTF biologist can help with management as well.

— Tom Carpenter

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