Providing Food, Water, & Shelter for Animals

Oct 29, 2018

Animals are like people in the most basic ways. For example, they need food, water, and shelter to live.

In this week's episode of Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist goes back to basics in wildlife management.

My first college level wildlife course was appropriately named Wildlife 101. It was a pretty basic class, but it covered a lot of material with broad strokes—everything from individual wildlife species information to how to write a memo. We learned about basic concepts like most limiting factors, least limiting factors, and habitat. All wildlife needs can be fit into one of three categories: food, water, and cover. Or at least they used to be. Now we teach our hunter safety students that wildlife needs food, water, cover, and space. That’s right – the wildlife management topics I learned as a freshman in college are presented at their most basic level to every twelve-year-old who takes hunter safety.

So twelve-year-olds know that all wildlife have varying food, water, cover and space needs. If you find the right overlap of these habitat components, you will find wildlife. If you find a spot between the components, wildlife will come to you. In the Northwoods, well-managed timber harvests put the best possible combination of wildlife habitat components together. Cutting trees provides an increase of food and cover by stimulating growth of ground cover plants and young saplings that spring up in dense patches. You will also see logging trails and tree-free clearings that served as log landings but are now called wildlife openings. These clearings are beneficial for wildlife for finding food, displaying to potential mates, travelling through their habitat, even foraging areas for their offspring.

Private landowners who own their land for hunting routinely contact me to discuss how they manage their land. They often ask me for food plot recommendations or ask what I think of their current planting species. On public forest properties, we will sometimes plant clover and alsike on logging roads that have disturbed soil. Otherwise, we do very little planting. Most landowners I talk to plant turnips or sugar beets. The deer munch on the tops during the growing season. Once the ground freezes and food in the woods becomes increasingly scarce, they will come back and paw up the ground to get to the rest of the plants.

Most of these landowners are thinking about planting annual plants. This is very labor intensive; the ground has to be cultivated every spring, planted, maybe weeded or sprayed during the growing season. Equipment and implements are necessary, and you have to get the work done as soon as you can in the spring to take full advantage of our relatively short growing season. Then, if you have soil acidity or fertility issues, you may not even get a crop. Or wildlife may dig up the seeds or seedlings early in the season, and it will be unavailable to wildlife in the fall and winter.

One option that people do not often consider is planting wildlife shrubs. There are several species of shrubs, like ninebark, dogwood, nannyberry, and hazelnut that fit the wildlife shrub category. These are attractive to wildlife like ruffed grouse, birds, deer, squirrels and bears. You can order wildlife shrubs from the Wisconsin DNR tree nursery right now into the winter; you can find more information by calling the DNR forester in your area, or searching “tree planting” on the DNR website. You can also order wildlife shrubs from private nurseries. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is a Federal agency that also provides private land wildlife habitat consultation; they have lists of beneficial trees and shrubs, and they can even help you determine if you are eligible for financial assistance or cost sharing.

Finally, one of the most common requests I hear is for money to help dig a pond. There is an impression out there that if you want deer to come to your property you need to have water on it. This is not true. Granted, deer like fresh water, and will be attracted to it. However, they cover a lot of ground in a day, so as long as they can find water when they need it, they will still use your land if you have high quality food and cover. In this area, digging a pond that holds water and stays clean is extremely difficult and expensive. If you really want to see if water will make a difference, you can experiment with a kiddie pool, a water garden liner or a small stock tank that you fill with fresh water periodically. Set up a trail camera and see what happens.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked Biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.