One of the most satisfying habitat improvement projects I’ve ever completed on my land involved a small clear-cut I created with a chainsaw. A profusion of wild blackberry, raspberry, dewberries and other vines, forbs and a native warm season grass (broomsedge) sprang up the following spring. The next spring, while picking berries, I came across a turkey nest in the thicket. Come summer, I witnessed a hen and her poults weaving in and out of the patch, no doubt feeding on the berries as well as insects.
Dr. Bret Collier, an associate professor of wildlife ecology at Louisiana State University, weighs in on how to create better habitat for hens and their young.
“If landowners are interested in creating brooding habitat, there are several things they can do, but a good bit of it depends on what the property looks like,” he says. “During the critical period of their first two to four weeks, poults are rapidly growing and need energy – meaning protein. They get that from insects primarily and also plant matter. So I encourage landowners to focus on the development and establishment of native forbs and grasses.”
Collier adds that if the opportunity presents itself, landowners should also try to remove non-native grasses (such as fescue). Then they can either let native seeds respond and/or plant natives after spraying. After a year or two, landowners should follow up with prescribed fire or mowing. The latter is an easy and fairly cost effective method for creating good brooding habitat.
“I am a big believer in fire, but not all landowners will have the ability to put fire on the ground,” Collier said. “So good work with a tractor and a sprayer, or a hand pump, can make a difference.”
Collier emphasizes that he is neither pro nor con on clear-cuts, but if they are part of the management plan for a property, then the use of timber harvest, typically followed by fire, is an excellent way to create and maintain brooding habitats. He would not, however trade/cut a nice big stand of mast producing hardwoods with low and well managed understory, in order to create strictly open brooding habitat, as those hardwood conditions provide great cover and in most cases food for broods as well.
The wildlife ecology professor says that when it comes to such topics as which forbs to plant, their growth will be pretty much ecosystem specific. The same really holds true for wild berries and native warm season grasses, as well. Checking with local wildlife biologists or extension agencies about what to plant is often time well spent.
Also, landowners should always keep in mind the needs of poults. For example, switchgrass is native to most of the United States east of the Rockies, and many folks like to plant it. However, a major caveat exists.
“Switchgrass grows too tall in lots of cases,” Collier says. “It’s a good cover type in some situations for sure and has some benefits, but I would not consider it a one-stop shop for poults at all.”
Finally, the important thing to keep in mind is if your management activities stimulate the growth of native berries, forbs and grasses, and then you’ve accomplished your goal of making life better for a mother hen and her offspring.