Improving Wildlife Habitat on Private Lands

North Carolina is blessed with a diverse group of wildlife habitats. They range from Spruce Fur forests, typical of the northern US, in the western mountains to salt marshes and sand dunes on the coast. Eight-six percent of North Carolina lands are privately owned and the landscape is constantly changing. Urbanization and development causes fragmentation and loss of habitats, with habitat loss being the greatest single factor adversely affecting wildlife populations today.

A diverse habitat is one that has a wide range of plant types, vegetation layers, water resources, and edges that provide cover from weather and predators, insects and small mammals for reptiles and amphibians, fruits and nuts for birds and mammals, and places to raise young. The more diverse the habitat, the greater the diversity of wildlife that can live there.

The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission wants to work cooperatively with private landowners across the state to manage our natural resources.  Landowners often desire property that is designed to improve habitat for wildlife species and need technical assistance to accomplish their goals and vision for their property.

Below you will find many technical resources to help guide you on your journey to improving your lands for wildlife. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission’s biologists are always available to speak to you, visit your property and guide you towards reaching your habitat and wildlife improvement goals.

It is important to understand that hardwoods, unlike pine, are very “site demanding.” Landowners need a greater understanding of soil and site conditions before making a decision on regeneration.

Unlike today’s pine in the southeastern United States, the great majority of hardwood stands are naturally regenerated. The reason for this is that artificially regenerated pine, especially loblolly pine, will grow well on a large variety of sites and soils throughout the southeast, making them a one size fits most tree. That is not the case for hardwoods. In most situations, natural regeneration of desirable hardwoods is much more cost effective than artificial regeneration. Successful regeneration of high quality hardwoods does not usually occur from simply clearcutting an existing forest and “seeing what comes back”. Oaks and other desirable species typically require thinning, and possibly burning to promote “advanced regeneration” before the parent trees are removed with a final harvest.

University of Tennessee: Site Preparation for Natural Regeneration of Hardwoods

Planting trees to convert a field or pasture to a hardwood forest is a good example of artificial regeneration.  Open land is typically more accessible that clear cuts, thus, more options exists for site preparation and caring for newly planted hardwood seedlings. The nurturing needed to get a stand established can be thought of in a similar fashion as managing your lawn. Multiple mowing during the first three or four years after planting and specialized herbicide applications may be needed before the seedlings become self-sufficient. Converting fields to hardwood forests is a noble, but intensive undertaking; make sure to plan accordingly.

(Photo: NCWRC Staff) - Hardwoods - Establishmnet - Artificial

(Photo: NCWRC Staff)

 

Virginia Division of Forestry Hardwood Planting Guide

Let’s face it, hardwood management is a long-term endeavor, especially when you are starting with a young stand of hardwood. While a landowner’s goal may be a majestic white oak raining down acorns, the reality may be years of watching a small tree grow. In fact, the prescription to manage a young hardwood stand is often, “let it grow and evaluate in 10 years”. This prospect does not sit well with some impatient folks who want to be out there investing “sweat equity” to improve the esthetics and habitat quality of their property. Consider the following options to improve habitat in a young hardwood stand.

Non-native species including privet, bittersweet, Bradford pear, kudzu, tree of heaven and paulownia can spread through a hardwood stand and persist for many years. These invaders suppress native species and can change the structure and function of the stand. While eradication of invasive species is not

practical in most situations, incorporating mechanical and chemical means to control invasive species will reduce their impact in the future.

Invasive.org

Most naturally regenerated young hardwood stands will close canopy when they reach 10 to 15 years old. As with any transition to forest, the absence of sunlight reaching the ground will cause the groundcover and understory to become suppressed and sparse. While the knee jerk response is to cut some trees and open the canopy this can be a catch 22 in a hardwood stand. Allowing sunlight to reach the forest floor also promotes undesirable branching on the future crop trees. These epicormic branches originate from the trunk of the tree, forming knots which will reduce the future commercial value of the tree. Where future commercial value is a concern, focus pre-commercial thinning efforts along roadsides, field edges and other openings in the forest. These transition areas will provide the most habitat benefit and will likely produce poorly shaped trees anyway. Consider pruning low growing branches to improve tree form and increase understory response.

Tennessee Extension: Crop Tree Release In Precommercial Hardwood Stands

Diversity is good for wildlife habitat. Single aged stands of closed canopy forest may favor one species of wildlife while being detrimental for others. Small openings in the canopy will result in pockets of varied habitat in an otherwise uniform forest stand. In young stands target clusters of low quality tree such as sweetgum, maple, elm or box elder to be cut to create openings. Treating the stumps of recently cut trees with herbicide will limit resprouting, allowing briars and vines to grow in the gap. Trees left lying on the ground will provide structure for nesting and cover for small mammals such as rabbits.

At this stage in the life of a hardwood stand what was considered pre-commercial thinning in a young stand is now referred to as crop tree release. This practice identifies a tree that meets the objective for the stand, commercial, wildlife or esthetic, and removes competing trees growing around it. Allowing the canopy of the crop tree to be “free to grow” not only increases growth rate, but also promotes increased fruit production. Species to release for increased mast production include: oak, hickory, blackgum, persimmon, beech and dogwood. Pollinators can benefit from increased blooms on yellow poplar and sourwood.

(Photo: NCWRC Staff) Hardwood - Mid Aged Crop Tree Release

(Photo: NCWRC Staff) 

 

University of Tennessee: Technical Guide to Crop Tree Release in Hardwood Forests

Diversity is good for wildlife habitat. Single aged stands of closed canopy forest may favor one species of wildlife while being detrimental for others. Small openings in the canopy will result in pockets of varied habitat in an otherwise uniform forest stand. In mid-aged stands, target clusters of low quality tree such as sweetgum, maple, elm or box elder to be cut to create openings. Treating the stumps of recently cut trees with herbicide will limit resprouting, allowing briars and vines to grow in the gap. Trees left lying on the ground will provide structure for nesting and cover for small mammals such as rabbits. Reptiles, amphibians and insects will likely benefit from the woody debris as well.

Sometimes we focus so much effort on keeping trees alive that we overlook the importance of dead standing trees, called snags. Many species of wildlife require snags as part of their habitat. Flying squirrels, bluebirds, woodpeckers and carpenter bees are just a few that depend on snags for a food and/or shelter. Insectivores pick adult and larval insects from the decaying tree. Cavity nesting species excavate dens, or enlarge those made by previous tenants, to meet their needs. Some

forests have suitable quantities of natural snags, but where lacking, snags can be created using the girdling or hack and squirt technique. Canopy Gaps: Diversity is good for wildlife habitat. Single aged stands of closed canopy forest may favor one species of wildlife while being detrimental for others. Small openings in the canopy will result in pockets of varied habitat in an otherwise uniform forest stand. In mid-aged stands target clusters of low quality trees such as sweetgum, maple, elm or box elder to be cut to create openings. Treating the stumps of recently cut trees with herbicide will limit resprouting, allowing briars and vines to grow in the gap. Trees left lying on the ground will provide structure for nesting and cover for small mammals such as rabbits. Reptiles, amphibians and insects will likely benefit from the woody debris as well.

NC Coop. Ext.: Snags and Downed Logs

Most often thought of as a pine management tool, prescribed burning has its place in hardwood stands as well. Prescribed fire in hardwood stands reduces the litter layer promoting herbaceous groundcover, top kills understory shrubs improving browse production and damages thinned barked species such as sweetgum and maple, releasing mast producing species such as white oak.  Burning hardwood stands requires a more narrow prescription than pine stands and should be conducted by experienced burners.  

(Photo: NCWRC Staff) - Hardwood - Mid Aged Prescribed Burns

(Photo: NCWRC Staff)

As the description states hardwood stands can get old and reach a point of being mature. Depending on species, location and past management these old trees may live to well over 200 years of age. Old hardwood trees are viewed by many as the pinnacle of conservation value, but just as with any other habitat type, what benefits one species may be a detriment to another. Often referred to as a “climax community” in the southeast, mature hardwood stands are not static ecosystems. Prior to European settlement naturally occurring fire likely relegated mature hardwood forests to river bottoms, mountain coves, wetlands, northern facing slopes and other areas with limited fire intensity and occurrence. Fire suppression efforts have allowed hardwood species to colonize, grow and mature on mid-slope and upland areas of the southeast.

(Photo: NCWRC Staff) - Hardwoods - Mature Harvest

(Photo: NCWRC Staff)

The typical financially based management recommendation for a mature hardwood stand is a clear-cut harvest, but these stands offer numerous opportunities for wildlife enhancement where habitat is the landowner’s objective.

Thinning hardwood stands is an option, but great care must be taken to ensure that the harvest improves the overall quality of the stand, not leaving it degraded. Historically small woodlot owners would “sell some timber” when they needed a financial boost. Often the need for money resulted in the best trees being harvested and lower quality trees being left to grow and produce new trees. This process of “take the best, leave the rest” is commonly referred to as “high grading”. The once common practice of high grading has degraded the quality of hardwood forests across the southeast. If you desire to have your hardwood stand thinned make sure to use a consulting forester who is experienced with this technique. To improve small stands of hardwood consider “leave the best, harvest the rest when selecting trees for firewood or custom lumber sawing.

Link to HDWD thinning

This harvest type basically identifies small sections of a forest to be clear-cut for commercial return and to promote forest regeneration. The small clear-cuts have many of the same benefits associated with creating canopy gaps in a younger forest. Small openings in the canopy will result in pockets of varied habitat in an otherwise uniform forest stand. The harvest size can be as small as ¼ acre to regenerate shade tolerant species or larger for shade intolerant species. The cost of bringing commercial harvesting equipment may limit the use of this technique on small tracts, but could be mimicked by harvesting a cluster of 5 or 6 trees for firewood or custom lumber sawing.

(Photo:  NCWRC Staff) - Hardwoods - Mature - Group Selection Harvest

(Photo: NCWRC Staff)

 

Link to group selection

Your tenure of managing your hardwood forest does not have to lead to a commercial harvest. Many species of wildlife utilize mature hardwood stands. Songbirds, amphibians and bats are just an example of species which need this habitat type. If you like your mature hardwood stand, let it grow, but do not expect it

not remain unchanged. Insects, disease, hurricanes and ice damage can and will result in tree mortality. Don’t look at the death of a tree as a loss, but rather a new beginning.

 

(Photo: NCWRC Staff) - Hardwood - Mature - "Surgical Management"

(Photo: NCWRC Staff)

 

New sprouts, new fungi, new amphibian homes and new nutrient in the soil. Focus your efforts on little things in the forest. Control invasives, make brush piles create a snag or two. Small practices which can make a sizable improvement in your hardwood forest no matter the acreage.

Link to low-cost/no cost???

Most often thought of as a pine management tool, prescribed burning has its place in hardwood stands as well. Prescribed fire in hardwood stands reduces the litter layer promoting herbaceous groundcover, top kills understory shrubs improving browse production and damages thinned barked species such as sweetgum and maple, releasing mast producing species such as white oak. Burning hardwood stands requires a narrower prescription than pine stands and should be conducted by experienced burners.

Link to Hardwood burning

Oftentimes, pine forests are established by planting young seedlings.  During the forestation process several factors should be considered to ensure wildlife habitat is addressed. The following information should be incorporated to enhance wildlife habitat into your forestation project.  

It is a common practice to use herbicides, prescribed fire and/or heavy equipment to prepare a site for tree planting.  These practices improve the ease of planting and increase seedling survival.  However, the site preparation recommended, for production-oriented stands, can prove detrimental to plant diversity and wildlife habitat.  Ensure that the minimal amount of site preparation, required to meet your objectives, is implemented during reforestation activities.  When planting trees in fields dominated by tall fescue, Bermudagrass or other sod forming grass, kill all non-native grasses, not just the bands where the trees are planted. 

The number of trees per acre (tpa) planted during a forestation project can greatly impact habitat quality for years to come.  More space between the seedlings will allow sunlight to reach the forest floor for a longer period of time.  Stands planted with 450 tpa or more will quickly close canopy, shading out beneficial ground cover and understory, degrading habitat quality.  To better meet wildlife objectives, 400 tpa or fewer is preferred.  Consider leaving some areas, such as field edges or road shoulders, unplanted or planted at a lower density to increase habitat diversity in the stand. 

(Photo: NCWRC Staff) - Pine Spacing

(Photo: NCWRC Staff)

Consider a less production-oriented species when establishing your new forest.  Shortleaf pine, longleaf pine and hardwood species may help you meet the wildlife objectives you have for your property, while maintaining a long-term revenue stream and property tax savings through they present use value program.  Shortleaf pine is native across the state and typically closes canopy more slowly than loblolly pine.  Longleaf pine is native to the eastern Piedmont and coastal plain, it too develops a closed canopy more slowly than loblolly pine and can withstand prescribed burning at a younger age than any other pine species.  While hardwood species can be difficult to successfully plant in a recent clear-cut, managing natural regeneration may be possible to develop a hardwood forest stand. Planting hardwood seedlings may be a viable option for converting a field or pasture to forest.  Hardwood plantings take several years of “babysitting” to control weed pressure and ensure successful establishment.    

(Photo: NCWRC Staff) - Pine Species Selection

(Photo:  NCWRC Staff)

Shortleaf Pine Initiative 

North Carolina Longleaf Coalition 

 

Periodically removing trees from a pine stand improves overall stand health, reduces competition for crop trees, lessens the spread of the insects and diseases and allow sunlight to reach the forest floor. Opening the canopy of a young forest can rejuvenate growth of the understory and ground cover, thus improving wildlife habitat. Specific details can be incorporated into both commercial and pre-commercial thinnings to address wildlife habitat objectives on a piece of property.

Pre-commercial thinning reduces the density of a young forest stand to promote crop tree growth. An added benefit is that it improves food and cover availability by increasing groundcover vigor. To enhance wildlife habitat, stands should be pre-commercially thinned to a density between the 250 and 350 tpa. Create small gaps and thin some areas more heavily to further enhance wildlife habitat in these young stands.

(Photo: NCWRC Staff) - Pine Pre-Commercial Thinning

(Photo: NCWRC Staff)

The best time to enhance wildlife habitat in a pine stand is during a commercial thinning. Heavy equipment is already on site, and the landowner gets paid for the material that is removed from the forest. Generally, thinning to improve wildlife habitat reduces the stand density 15 to 25% below the density of stands where production is the sole objective. Variable density thinning can remove more trees in significant habitat areas such as field edges, road shoulders, utility right of ways and unique natural areas. It is recommended that a registered forester be hired to manage commercial timber harvest and that your forester clearly understand your wildlife objectives.

(Photo: NCWRC Staff) - Pine Commercial Thinning

(Photo: NCWRC Staff)

NC Cooperative Extension: Developing Wildlife-Friendly Pine Plantations

In some instances pine stands can be managed to promote a longer rotation with natural regeneration of crop trees in the understory. Periodic harvests remove a portion of the commercially valuable overstory trees, allowing sunlight to reach the natural seedlings which will form the next generation of the forest. This management style is a good fit for longleaf forest, but can be adapted to other species as well. Uneven-age management results in a “perpetual forest”, which is appealing to some landowners. The esthetic benefits do have costs associated with more intensive management and less efficient harvests. A forester, knowledgeable with this management style, is highly recommended to assist with uneven-aged projects.

Prescribed burning is likely the most economical wildlife management tool in pine stands. Burning effectively top kills woody sprouts, promoting stump sprouting, which provides lush browse for species such as whitetail deer. It also removes the accumulated needles and leaves from the forest floor which greatly suppresses herbaceous ground cover. Fire plays an important role in the soil nutrient cycle and is required for the natural regeneration of some tree species such as pond pine, Table Mountain pine and longleaf pine.

Fire has shaped the natural landscape of North Carolina throughout history. Written accounts from early explorers document expansive areas of grassland with widely spaced trees covering much of the state. Whether ignited by lightning or native Americans this “Grand Savannah” would not have occurred without fire. Grasslands would have likely burned every 2 to 3 years, while pocosins, Carolina bays, mountain coves, riparian areas and marshes would have burned with less regularity. Fire has certainly formed many of North Carolina’s natural features, but several hundred years of fire suppression has impacted what we consider the “natural landscape” of North Carolina today. Prescribed burning is used by resource managers to mimic historic burns to promote a more diverse ecosystem.

Much as medication is prescribed in specific doses to get the desired outcome, fire can be prescribed to meet specific habitat management goals. Two criteria that must be addressed as part of a burning prescription are frequency and intensity. Herbaceous groundcover will require burns at least every 2 or 3 years to suppress woody growth. Woody growth can be best managed for browse and cover by burning every 3 to 5 years. Contrary to logic, a slow moving, low intensity fire can effectively top kill woody growth as it holds heat around the stem for a longer period of time. Burning during the spring or summer growing season typically controls woody species and promotes herbaceous groundcover. While burning is a great management tool, understory response will depend greatly on canopy density.

(Photo: NCWRC Staff)

North Carolina Prescribed Fire Council

NC Cooperative Extension: Using Fire to Improve Wildlife Habitat​

 

Fire lines or firebreaks are needed to contain prescribed burns. When possible natural or permanent man-made features should be used as fire line. Creeks, lakes, roads or field edges can all serve as a barrier to limit the spread of fire. When fire line must be installed, avoid deeply plowed lines which can channel water, causing erosion. In riparian zones and where fuels will allow, install fire line with hand tools. When heavy equipment must be used, lines should not be plowed, but rather bladed.

(Photo: NCWRC Staff)

Fire lines should be wide enough to improve access for you to enjoy your property. Water bars and other water diversions should be installed to reduce erosion. Fire lines should be seeded with grains and legumes to stabilize soils and provide a food source for wildlife.

Often refer to as “cost-share”, financial assistance programs provide funding to offset the cost of implementation and management of conservation practices.  Some programs provide additional funding to make up for lost revenue that results from managing one’s land for conservation purposes.  While the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission does not have their own financial assistance program, they do have staff with knowledge and experience to guide landowners to funding sources which will best meet their wildlife habitat objectives.

 

Oftentimes, the thought of monetary gain leads landowners to modify their management goals and objectives or “bite off more than they can chew” to improve their chances of getting funded.  It is important for landowners to remember that most “cost-share” funds are tied to contracts which require specific actions and standards to receive funding.  While each program has unique criteria, commonly funded habitat management practices include: prescribe burning, native vegetation establishment, early succession management and riparian buffer enhancement.

To ensure that a landowner is satisfied with the “cost-share” process and successful in completing a contract the following steps should be taken before signing up for funding:

  • Landowners should clearly define their management goals and objectives.
  • A management plan should be developed with input from appropriate professional to address landowners’ objectives.
  • With assistance from resource professionals, a landowner should research, prioritize and categorize recommendations to determine which practices to seek funding for.
  • Available financial assistance should be identified and evaluated to select which program best fits the landowner’s objectives, abilities and limitations.
  • Begin the application process with the appropriate funding organization well before deadline if possible.
Program Agency/ Organization Website

Environmental Quality

Incentive Program

Natural Resources

Conservation Service

North Carolina EQIP

Conservation Stewardship

Program

Natural Resources

Conservation Service

North Carolina CSP

Conservation Reserve

Program

Farm Service Agency

National CRP

Forest Development

Program

NC Forest Service

Forest Development Program

Partners for Fish
and Wildlife
US Fish and Wildlife Service

Partners for Fish and Wildlife

Agriculture Cost S
hare Program

North Carolina Division of

Soil and Water Conservation

North Carolina ACSP

The Wildlife Conservation Lands Program (WCLP) allows landowners who are willing to manage their property for protected wildlife species or priority wildlife habitats to apply for a reduced tax assessment. This reduced assessment will reduce the annual tax payment due for the property. As with any program requirements and limitations do apply. Landowners who are more interested in maintaining the natural significance of their property more than economical gain should research WCLP to determine if it is a good fit for their management objectives.

Wildlife Conservation Land Program

Every landowner’s property does not have a qualifying habitat type nor is it home to a species which will allow enrollment in WCLP. The Present Use Value program (PUV) addresses lands which are primarily utilized in agricultural, forestry or horticulture production. While PUV enrollment does have certain production-oriented requirements, there are opportunities to enhance wildlife habitat on these production lands. Contact a NCWRC private lands staff person if you would like to better address wildlife habitat on your working lands.

 

NC Cooperative Extension: Forestry Present Use Value

NC Dept. of Revenue: Present Use Value Website

Landowners who are primarily concerned with wildlife habitat should consider identifying portions of their property which can be dedicated to early succession habitat.  These areas could consist of blocks, corridors or entire fields where vegetation will be managed to maintain habitat for desired wildlife species.  Early succession species may be planted in these areas or fallow vegetation may be managed to enhance habitat.  The most difficult part of managing early successional habitat on private lands is often getting the landowner to accept that high quality habitat may look unkept.  Link to info on abandoned fields.

Several steps can be taken even when a landowner desires habitat enhancement but requires continued production from their pastures and hayfields. 

  • Native grasses such as big bluestem, Indiangrass, switchgrass and eastern gamagrass can be established as a portion of the forage base.  These grasses provide excellent nutrition for livestock and have a structure which improves wildlife habitat.
  • Livestock should be excluded from streams and ponds whenever possible.  Animal waste is detrimental to aquatic habitats and livestock are healthier when they have access to a clean water source.
  • Managing the grazing pressure of livestock in a pasture can result in more cover for ground nesting birds as well as more blooming plants for pollinators.  Proper stocking rates of livestock, multiple paddocks and rotational grazing are required if wildlife habitat is to be addressed with a prescribed grazing system.
  • Hay harvest can be postponed in portions of the field until after the primary nesting season.  Delaying harvest until late June will allow for most ground nesting birds to fledge their young.
  • Native grasses should not be harvested after August 1 to ensure that adequate regrowth is available for winter cover.  Not only will this benefit wildlife, resting these plants during the late summer and fall will increase plant vigor and productivity the following spring.
    •  Links to related publications

Landowners who are primarily concerned with wildlife habitat should consider identifying portions of their property which can be dedicated to early succession habitat.  These areas could consist of blocks, corridors or entire fields where vegetation will be managed to maintain habitat not to exceed three years old.  Early succession species may be planted in these areas or fallow vegetation may be managed to enhance habitat.  The most difficult part of managing early successional habitat on private lands is often getting the landowner to accept that high quality habitat may look unkept.  Link to info on abandoned fields.

  • Several practices can be implemented when a landowner desires habitat enhancement but requires continued production from their cropland.
  • Dedicated habitat areas can be established.  Native grasses such as little bluestem, Indiangrass, switchgrass and tridens purpletop can be established as well as wildflowers.  When possible utilize odd areas of a field which may be difficult to farm.  Fallow vegetation can be managed in these areas if planting is not desired.
  • Incorporate native plant species into conservation practices such as grassed waterways, filter strips and buffers.  These practices already protect water quality and reduce soil erosion, incorporating native grasses and wildflowers can add wildlife and pollinator benefit as well.
  • Limit the mowing and management of waterways, filter strips and buffers during the nesting season.  Allowing this vegetation to stand through the spring and early summer will allow many species of wildlife to raise their first clutch of young.  When possible manage vegetation only once every other year to allow for brooding and winter cover. 
  • Buffer ditches and control ditch bank vegetation with selective herbicide rather than sidearm mowers.  Ditch buffers will protect water quality and help remove nitrates from surface water.  They will also reduce sedimentation of the adjacent ditches, thus increasing the interval between costly ditch cleaned outs.   
  • Utilize no till planting and cover crops whenever possible.  Not only does no till planting and cover crops benefit soil health, moisture attention and weed control, maintaining the crop residue can benefit wildlife.  Macro invertebrates such as worms, grubs, insects and larva thrive in this residue.  The macro invertebrates are a critical source of protein for many species of birds during the brooding process.  Without protein, young may experience improper development or starvation.
  • Links to related publications

Whether your plan is to manage fallow species or establish native vegetation undesirable species should be controlled using chemical or mechanical means.  Sod forming grasses such as fescue, Bermuda grass and Bahia grass can persist in a habitat area for a long period of time, having a negative impact on habitat quality.  Common agricultural weeds such as sicklepod and Cocklebur can behave in a similar fashion if not controlled before habitat enhancement activities.  Do not expect to control undesirables with a single herbicide application or single disturbance activity, it will likely take multiple treatments.

Simply breaking the ground can promote beneficial plants and enhance habitat.  Disking open areas in fall most often promotes species which include ragweed, partridge pea and lespedeza.  The hard seed these plant produce provide a valuable food source for many species of birds and mammals.  Spring disking usually increases the coverage of annual grasses such as volunteer foxtails and millets.  On agricultural sites disking may promote agricultural pest species such as sickle-pod, johnsongrass, and cocklebur. Selective herbicide may be needed to address these undesirable species. Disking should not be conducted during the nesting season which runs from Mid-April to Mid-September. 

  • In some instances, planting “new” vegetation is needed, is more attractive to landowners than managing fallow vegetation or may be required by program requirements.  While a more diverse habitat will result from managing the seed bank, we as humans seem to have a strong internal need to plant seeds.  Also, in has become our nature to want to see result quickly.  When preparing to plant an area use only the herbicide required to establish the desired species.  Select species and seeding rates which will address your objectives.  For forage production tall native grasses planted at 10-12 pounds of seed per acre is not uncommon.  For songbirds or Bobwhite quail, 3 or 4 pounds of short native grass and 4 or 5 pounds of forbs per acre will prove effective.  If pollinator habitat is a goal, 2 or 3 pounds of short native grass and 8+ pounds of wildflowers per acre is not uncommon.

Whether your plan is to manage fallow species or establish native vegetation undesirable species should be controlled using chemical or mechanical means.  Sod forming grasses such as fescue, Bermuda grass and Bahia grass can persist in a habitat area for a long period of time, having a negative impact on habitat quality.  Common agricultural weeds such as sicklepod and Cocklebur can behave in a similar fashion if not controlled before habitat enhancement activities.  Do not expect to control undesirables with a single herbicide application or sold disruption, it will likely take multiple treatments.

  • Disking should not be conducted during the nesting season which runs from Mid-April to Mid-September.  To provide a mosaic of habitat blocks or strips should be on a 2 or 3-year rotation.  Where possible disk along contours to reduce erosion risk.  Soil conditions and land use history may dictate how heavily the soil should be cut during disking.  Dense stands of grass may require heavier disking that land which has recently come out of ag production.  Results should be evaluated and modified in subsequent treatments as need.
  • Prescribed burning is the preferred method of managing early successional habitat.  It removes thatch, controls undesirable woody growth and returns nutrients to the soil.  It is the “natural” way of managing vegetation.  Care should be taken to ensure stay within containment lines and smoke does not become a nuisance to neighbors.  Experienced professionals should be hired to conduct burns until the landowner gains their own experience.  Early successional burns can be patchy to allow for habitat and species diversity.  Even burning small blocks can have a positive impact.     
  • Mowing is the least desirable, but sometimes required, method of early successional management.  While cutting the vegetation somewhat mimics large herds of grazing animals the thatch generated can act as mulch to suppress annual herbaceous vegetation.  Mowing also favors perennial cool season grasses and promotes stump sprouts of tree species.  Mowing should not take place during the primary nesting season of April 15th through t September 15th.  To best enhance habitat utilize mowing in correlation with burning, disking or selective herbicide application.       
    • Links to related publications
  • Modern agricultural and forest production practices often lead to an abrupt or “hard” edge.  An abrupt change from field to forest narrows the transition zone limiting habitat benefit.  To improve edge habitat, management can take place in the field, in the forest, or both.  Field edges, which are often the least productive part of the field, can be taken out of production in favor of early succession habitat.  Introduced grasses such as Bermuda and fescue should be killed, and field borders be allowed to go fallow or a mixture of native grasses and forbs be planted.  In the forest edge, trees can be cut down, girdled, killed with herbicide or harvested to improve wildlife habitat.  This treatment will allow more sunlight to reach the forest floor, promoting saplings, forbs, grasses and briars. Enhancing and maintaining edges will result in a wider, more natural transition from production field, to herbaceous vegetation, to shrub-scrub, to forest.  The increased habitat diversity in this area will make it more useful to a more diverse group of animals.           

Forest Wildlife Habitat

Whether your landholdings are 10,000 acres in Manteo, 10 acres in Murphy or somewhere in between, there are opportunities to improve your fields and forest for wildlife. Below you will find information categorized by typical land types found in North Carolina. Using knowledge of your property explore the tabs below to learn what can be done to meet your wildlife habitat objectives.

Pine species are vital to commercial forestry in the state, with loblolly pine being the most commonly planted tree in the state.While the economical, historical and ecological value of the pine tree cannot be called into question, most habitat benefit in pine forests comes from the plants growing under the trees themselves.Management decisions, throughout the life span of a pine stand, can help to balance wildlife habitat and forest production objectives.

Oftentimes, pine forests are established by planting young seedlings.  During the forestation process several factors should be considered to ensure wildlife habitat is addressed. The following information should be incorporated to enhance wildlife habitat into your forestation project.  

It is a common practice to use herbicides, prescribed fire and/or heavy equipment to prepare a site for tree planting.  These practices improve the ease of planting and increase seedling survival.  However, the site preparation recommended, for production-oriented stands, can prove detrimental to plant diversity and wildlife habitat.  Ensure that the minimal amount of site preparation, required to meet your objectives, is implemented during reforestation activities.  When planting trees in fields dominated by tall fescue, Bermudagrass or other sod forming grass, kill all non-native grasses, not just the bands where the trees are planted. 

The number of trees per acre (tpa) planted during a forestation project can greatly impact habitat quality for years to come.  More space between the seedlings will allow sunlight to reach the forest floor for a longer period of time.  Stands planted with 450 tpa or more will quickly close canopy, shading out beneficial ground cover and understory, degrading habitat quality.  To better meet wildlife objectives, 400 tpa or fewer is preferred.  Consider leaving some areas, such as field edges or road shoulders, unplanted or planted at a lower density to increase habitat diversity in the stand. 

(Photo: NCWRC Staff) - Pine Spacing

(Photo: NCWRC Staff)

Consider a less production-oriented species when establishing your new forest.  Shortleaf pine, longleaf pine and hardwood species may help you meet the wildlife objectives you have for your property, while maintaining a long-term revenue stream and property tax savings through they present use value program.  Shortleaf pine is native across the state and typically closes canopy more slowly than loblolly pine.  Longleaf pine is native to the eastern Piedmont and coastal plain, it too develops a closed canopy more slowly than loblolly pine and can withstand prescribed burning at a younger age than any other pine species.  While hardwood species can be difficult to successfully plant in a recent clear-cut, managing natural regeneration may be possible to develop a hardwood forest stand. Planting hardwood seedlings may be a viable option for converting a field or pasture to forest.  Hardwood plantings take several years of “babysitting” to control weed pressure and ensure successful establishment.    

(Photo: NCWRC Staff) - Pine Species Selection

(Photo:  NCWRC Staff)

Shortleaf Pine Initiative 

North Carolina Longleaf Coalition 

 

Periodically removing trees from a pine stand improves overall stand health, reduces competition for crop trees, lessens the spread of the insects and diseases and allow sunlight to reach the forest floor. Opening the canopy of a young forest can rejuvenate growth of the understory and ground cover, thus improving wildlife habitat. Specific details can be incorporated into both commercial and pre-commercial thinnings to address wildlife habitat objectives on a piece of property.

Pre-commercial thinning reduces the density of a young forest stand to promote crop tree growth. An added benefit is that it improves food and cover availability by increasing groundcover vigor. To enhance wildlife habitat, stands should be pre-commercially thinned to a density between the 250 and 350 tpa. Create small gaps and thin some areas more heavily to further enhance wildlife habitat in these young stands.

(Photo: NCWRC Staff) - Pine Pre-Commercial Thinning

(Photo: NCWRC Staff)

The best time to enhance wildlife habitat in a pine stand is during a commercial thinning. Heavy equipment is already on site, and the landowner gets paid for the material that is removed from the forest. Generally, thinning to improve wildlife habitat reduces the stand density 15 to 25% below the density of stands where production is the sole objective. Variable density thinning can remove more trees in significant habitat areas such as field edges, road shoulders, utility right of ways and unique natural areas. It is recommended that a registered forester be hired to manage commercial timber harvest and that your forester clearly understand your wildlife objectives.

(Photo: NCWRC Staff) - Pine Commercial Thinning

(Photo: NCWRC Staff)

NC Cooperative Extension: Developing Wildlife-Friendly Pine Plantations

In some instances pine stands can be managed to promote a longer rotation with natural regeneration of crop trees in the understory. Periodic harvests remove a portion of the commercially valuable overstory trees, allowing sunlight to reach the natural seedlings which will form the next generation of the forest. This management style is a good fit for longleaf forest, but can be adapted to other species as well. Uneven-age management results in a “perpetual forest”, which is appealing to some landowners. The esthetic benefits do have costs associated with more intensive management and less efficient harvests. A forester, knowledgeable with this management style, is highly recommended to assist with uneven-aged projects.

Prescribed burning is likely the most economical wildlife management tool in pine stands. Burning effectively top kills woody sprouts, promoting stump sprouting, which provides lush browse for species such as whitetail deer. It also removes the accumulated needles and leaves from the forest floor which greatly suppresses herbaceous ground cover. Fire plays an important role in the soil nutrient cycle and is required for the natural regeneration of some tree species such as pond pine, Table Mountain pine and longleaf pine.

Fire has shaped the natural landscape of North Carolina throughout history. Written accounts from early explorers document expansive areas of grassland with widely spaced trees covering much of the state. Whether ignited by lightning or native Americans this “Grand Savannah” would not have occurred without fire. Grasslands would have likely burned every 2 to 3 years, while pocosins, Carolina bays, mountain coves, riparian areas and marshes would have burned with less regularity. Fire has certainly formed many of North Carolina’s natural features, but several hundred years of fire suppression has impacted what we consider the “natural landscape” of North Carolina today. Prescribed burning is used by resource managers to mimic historic burns to promote a more diverse ecosystem.

Much as medication is prescribed in specific doses to get the desired outcome, fire can be prescribed to meet specific habitat management goals. Two criteria that must be addressed as part of a burning prescription are frequency and intensity. Herbaceous groundcover will require burns at least every 2 or 3 years to suppress woody growth. Woody growth can be best managed for browse and cover by burning every 3 to 5 years. Contrary to logic, a slow moving, low intensity fire can effectively top kill woody growth as it holds heat around the stem for a longer period of time. Burning during the spring or summer growing season typically controls woody species and promotes herbaceous groundcover. While burning is a great management tool, understory response will depend greatly on canopy density.

(Photo: NCWRC Staff)

North Carolina Prescribed Fire Council

NC Cooperative Extension: Using Fire to Improve Wildlife Habitat​

 

Fire lines or firebreaks are needed to contain prescribed burns. When possible natural or permanent man-made features should be used as fire line. Creeks, lakes, roads or field edges can all serve as a barrier to limit the spread of fire. When fire line must be installed, avoid deeply plowed lines which can channel water, causing erosion. In riparian zones and where fuels will allow, install fire line with hand tools. When heavy equipment must be used, lines should not be plowed, but rather bladed.

(Photo: NCWRC Staff)

Fire lines should be wide enough to improve access for you to enjoy your property. Water bars and other water diversions should be installed to reduce erosion. Fire lines should be seeded with grains and legumes to stabilize soils and provide a food source for wildlife.

While hardwood forests are financially important to the state, they are critical to the health and well-being of many species of native wildlife.  Common critters such as gray squirrel, white-tail deer and wild turkey are often observed foraging through hardwood stands.  Some less common species are even more dependent on hardwood forests.  For example, Prothonotary warblers migrate from South American to nest in mature bottomland hardwood forests across the eastern piedmont and coastal plain of North Carolina. 

 

Landowners interested in enhancing their land for wildlife oriented objectives have a wide range of management options.  Many of these practices are low cost, or no cost.  Most can be implemented on tracts both large and small.  Review the information below to see what options are available for you to nurture the hardwood habitats on your property.

It is important to understand that hardwoods, unlike pine, are very “site demanding.” Landowners need a greater understanding of soil and site conditions before making a decision on regeneration.

Unlike today’s pine in the southeastern United States, the great majority of hardwood stands are naturally regenerated. The reason for this is that artificially regenerated pine, especially loblolly pine, will grow well on a large variety of sites and soils throughout the southeast, making them a one size fits most tree. That is not the case for hardwoods. In most situations, natural regeneration of desirable hardwoods is much more cost effective than artificial regeneration. Successful regeneration of high quality hardwoods does not usually occur from simply clearcutting an existing forest and “seeing what comes back”. Oaks and other desirable species typically require thinning, and possibly burning to promote “advanced regeneration” before the parent trees are removed with a final harvest.

University of Tennessee: Site Preparation for Natural Regeneration of Hardwoods

Planting trees to convert a field or pasture to a hardwood forest is a good example of artificial regeneration.  Open land is typically more accessible that clear cuts, thus, more options exists for site preparation and caring for newly planted hardwood seedlings. The nurturing needed to get a stand established can be thought of in a similar fashion as managing your lawn. Multiple mowing during the first three or four years after planting and specialized herbicide applications may be needed before the seedlings become self-sufficient. Converting fields to hardwood forests is a noble, but intensive undertaking; make sure to plan accordingly.

(Photo: NCWRC Staff) - Hardwoods - Establishmnet - Artificial

(Photo: NCWRC Staff)

 

Virginia Division of Forestry Hardwood Planting Guide

Let’s face it, hardwood management is a long-term endeavor, especially when you are starting with a young stand of hardwood. While a landowner’s goal may be a majestic white oak raining down acorns, the reality may be years of watching a small tree grow. In fact, the prescription to manage a young hardwood stand is often, “let it grow and evaluate in 10 years”. This prospect does not sit well with some impatient folks who want to be out there investing “sweat equity” to improve the esthetics and habitat quality of their property. Consider the following options to improve habitat in a young hardwood stand.

Non-native species including privet, bittersweet, Bradford pear, kudzu, tree of heaven and paulownia can spread through a hardwood stand and persist for many years. These invaders suppress native species and can change the structure and function of the stand. While eradication of invasive species is not

practical in most situations, incorporating mechanical and chemical means to control invasive species will reduce their impact in the future.

Invasive.org

Most naturally regenerated young hardwood stands will close canopy when they reach 10 to 15 years old. As with any transition to forest, the absence of sunlight reaching the ground will cause the groundcover and understory to become suppressed and sparse. While the knee jerk response is to cut some trees and open the canopy this can be a catch 22 in a hardwood stand. Allowing sunlight to reach the forest floor also promotes undesirable branching on the future crop trees. These epicormic branches originate from the trunk of the tree, forming knots which will reduce the future commercial value of the tree. Where future commercial value is a concern, focus pre-commercial thinning efforts along roadsides, field edges and other openings in the forest. These transition areas will provide the most habitat benefit and will likely produce poorly shaped trees anyway. Consider pruning low growing branches to improve tree form and increase understory response.

Tennessee Extension: Crop Tree Release In Precommercial Hardwood Stands

Diversity is good for wildlife habitat. Single aged stands of closed canopy forest may favor one species of wildlife while being detrimental for others. Small openings in the canopy will result in pockets of varied habitat in an otherwise uniform forest stand. In young stands target clusters of low quality tree such as sweetgum, maple, elm or box elder to be cut to create openings. Treating the stumps of recently cut trees with herbicide will limit resprouting, allowing briars and vines to grow in the gap. Trees left lying on the ground will provide structure for nesting and cover for small mammals such as rabbits.

At this stage in the life of a hardwood stand what was considered pre-commercial thinning in a young stand is now referred to as crop tree release. This practice identifies a tree that meets the objective for the stand, commercial, wildlife or esthetic, and removes competing trees growing around it. Allowing the canopy of the crop tree to be “free to grow” not only increases growth rate, but also promotes increased fruit production. Species to release for increased mast production include: oak, hickory, blackgum, persimmon, beech and dogwood. Pollinators can benefit from increased blooms on yellow poplar and sourwood.

(Photo: NCWRC Staff) Hardwood - Mid Aged Crop Tree Release

(Photo: NCWRC Staff) 

 

University of Tennessee: Technical Guide to Crop Tree Release in Hardwood Forests

Diversity is good for wildlife habitat. Single aged stands of closed canopy forest may favor one species of wildlife while being detrimental for others. Small openings in the canopy will result in pockets of varied habitat in an otherwise uniform forest stand. In mid-aged stands, target clusters of low quality tree such as sweetgum, maple, elm or box elder to be cut to create openings. Treating the stumps of recently cut trees with herbicide will limit resprouting, allowing briars and vines to grow in the gap. Trees left lying on the ground will provide structure for nesting and cover for small mammals such as rabbits. Reptiles, amphibians and insects will likely benefit from the woody debris as well.

Sometimes we focus so much effort on keeping trees alive that we overlook the importance of dead standing trees, called snags. Many species of wildlife require snags as part of their habitat. Flying squirrels, bluebirds, woodpeckers and carpenter bees are just a few that depend on snags for a food and/or shelter. Insectivores pick adult and larval insects from the decaying tree. Cavity nesting species excavate dens, or enlarge those made by previous tenants, to meet their needs. Some

forests have suitable quantities of natural snags, but where lacking, snags can be created using the girdling or hack and squirt technique. Canopy Gaps: Diversity is good for wildlife habitat. Single aged stands of closed canopy forest may favor one species of wildlife while being detrimental for others. Small openings in the canopy will result in pockets of varied habitat in an otherwise uniform forest stand. In mid-aged stands target clusters of low quality trees such as sweetgum, maple, elm or box elder to be cut to create openings. Treating the stumps of recently cut trees with herbicide will limit resprouting, allowing briars and vines to grow in the gap. Trees left lying on the ground will provide structure for nesting and cover for small mammals such as rabbits. Reptiles, amphibians and insects will likely benefit from the woody debris as well.

NC Coop. Ext.: Snags and Downed Logs

Most often thought of as a pine management tool, prescribed burning has its place in hardwood stands as well. Prescribed fire in hardwood stands reduces the litter layer promoting herbaceous groundcover, top kills understory shrubs improving browse production and damages thinned barked species such as sweetgum and maple, releasing mast producing species such as white oak.  Burning hardwood stands requires a more narrow prescription than pine stands and should be conducted by experienced burners.  

(Photo: NCWRC Staff) - Hardwood - Mid Aged Prescribed Burns

(Photo: NCWRC Staff)

As the description states hardwood stands can get old and reach a point of being mature. Depending on species, location and past management these old trees may live to well over 200 years of age. Old hardwood trees are viewed by many as the pinnacle of conservation value, but just as with any other habitat type, what benefits one species may be a detriment to another. Often referred to as a “climax community” in the southeast, mature hardwood stands are not static ecosystems. Prior to European settlement naturally occurring fire likely relegated mature hardwood forests to river bottoms, mountain coves, wetlands, northern facing slopes and other areas with limited fire intensity and occurrence. Fire suppression efforts have allowed hardwood species to colonize, grow and mature on mid-slope and upland areas of the southeast.

(Photo: NCWRC Staff) - Hardwoods - Mature Harvest

(Photo: NCWRC Staff)

The typical financially based management recommendation for a mature hardwood stand is a clear-cut harvest, but these stands offer numerous opportunities for wildlife enhancement where habitat is the landowner’s objective.

Thinning hardwood stands is an option, but great care must be taken to ensure that the harvest improves the overall quality of the stand, not leaving it degraded. Historically small woodlot owners would “sell some timber” when they needed a financial boost. Often the need for money resulted in the best trees being harvested and lower quality trees being left to grow and produce new trees. This process of “take the best, leave the rest” is commonly referred to as “high grading”. The once common practice of high grading has degraded the quality of hardwood forests across the southeast. If you desire to have your hardwood stand thinned make sure to use a consulting forester who is experienced with this technique. To improve small stands of hardwood consider “leave the best, harvest the rest when selecting trees for firewood or custom lumber sawing.

Link to HDWD thinning

This harvest type basically identifies small sections of a forest to be clear-cut for commercial return and to promote forest regeneration. The small clear-cuts have many of the same benefits associated with creating canopy gaps in a younger forest. Small openings in the canopy will result in pockets of varied habitat in an otherwise uniform forest stand. The harvest size can be as small as ¼ acre to regenerate shade tolerant species or larger for shade intolerant species. The cost of bringing commercial harvesting equipment may limit the use of this technique on small tracts, but could be mimicked by harvesting a cluster of 5 or 6 trees for firewood or custom lumber sawing.

(Photo:  NCWRC Staff) - Hardwoods - Mature - Group Selection Harvest

(Photo: NCWRC Staff)

 

Link to group selection

Your tenure of managing your hardwood forest does not have to lead to a commercial harvest. Many species of wildlife utilize mature hardwood stands. Songbirds, amphibians and bats are just an example of species which need this habitat type. If you like your mature hardwood stand, let it grow, but do not expect it

not remain unchanged. Insects, disease, hurricanes and ice damage can and will result in tree mortality. Don’t look at the death of a tree as a loss, but rather a new beginning.

 

(Photo: NCWRC Staff) - Hardwood - Mature - "Surgical Management"

(Photo: NCWRC Staff)

 

New sprouts, new fungi, new amphibian homes and new nutrient in the soil. Focus your efforts on little things in the forest. Control invasives, make brush piles create a snag or two. Small practices which can make a sizable improvement in your hardwood forest no matter the acreage.

Link to low-cost/no cost???

Most often thought of as a pine management tool, prescribed burning has its place in hardwood stands as well. Prescribed fire in hardwood stands reduces the litter layer promoting herbaceous groundcover, top kills understory shrubs improving browse production and damages thinned barked species such as sweetgum and maple, releasing mast producing species such as white oak. Burning hardwood stands requires a narrower prescription than pine stands and should be conducted by experienced burners.

Link to Hardwood burning

Private lands in North Carolina play a significant role in the conservation of natural resources.  To facilitate the wise management of these resources many governmental agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGO) provide technical assistance to aid landowners meet their management goals and objectives.  In addition to sharing knowledge, some agencies provide financial assistance to offset the cost of implementing conservation practices.  Landowners should be aware that each group which provides assistance has goals and objectives of their own.  Care should be taken to identify the conservation partners and financial assistance program, which can best address the landowner’s objectives.

Often refer to as “cost-share”, financial assistance programs provide funding to offset the cost of implementation and management of conservation practices.  Some programs provide additional funding to make up for lost revenue that results from managing one’s land for conservation purposes.  While the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission does not have their own financial assistance program, they do have staff with knowledge and experience to guide landowners to funding sources which will best meet their wildlife habitat objectives.

 

Oftentimes, the thought of monetary gain leads landowners to modify their management goals and objectives or “bite off more than they can chew” to improve their chances of getting funded.  It is important for landowners to remember that most “cost-share” funds are tied to contracts which require specific actions and standards to receive funding.  While each program has unique criteria, commonly funded habitat management practices include: prescribe burning, native vegetation establishment, early succession management and riparian buffer enhancement.

To ensure that a landowner is satisfied with the “cost-share” process and successful in completing a contract the following steps should be taken before signing up for funding:

  • Landowners should clearly define their management goals and objectives.
  • A management plan should be developed with input from appropriate professional to address landowners’ objectives.
  • With assistance from resource professionals, a landowner should research, prioritize and categorize recommendations to determine which practices to seek funding for.
  • Available financial assistance should be identified and evaluated to select which program best fits the landowner’s objectives, abilities and limitations.
  • Begin the application process with the appropriate funding organization well before deadline if possible.
Program Agency/ Organization Website

Environmental Quality

Incentive Program

Natural Resources

Conservation Service

North Carolina EQIP

Conservation Stewardship

Program

Natural Resources

Conservation Service

North Carolina CSP

Conservation Reserve

Program

Farm Service Agency

National CRP

Forest Development

Program

NC Forest Service

Forest Development Program

Partners for Fish
and Wildlife
US Fish and Wildlife Service

Partners for Fish and Wildlife

Agriculture Cost S
hare Program

North Carolina Division of

Soil and Water Conservation

North Carolina ACSP

The Wildlife Conservation Lands Program (WCLP) allows landowners who are willing to manage their property for protected wildlife species or priority wildlife habitats to apply for a reduced tax assessment. This reduced assessment will reduce the annual tax payment due for the property. As with any program requirements and limitations do apply. Landowners who are more interested in maintaining the natural significance of their property more than economical gain should research WCLP to determine if it is a good fit for their management objectives.

Wildlife Conservation Land Program

Every landowner’s property does not have a qualifying habitat type nor is it home to a species which will allow enrollment in WCLP. The Present Use Value program (PUV) addresses lands which are primarily utilized in agricultural, forestry or horticulture production. While PUV enrollment does have certain production-oriented requirements, there are opportunities to enhance wildlife habitat on these production lands. Contact a NCWRC private lands staff person if you would like to better address wildlife habitat on your working lands.

 

NC Cooperative Extension: Forestry Present Use Value

NC Dept. of Revenue: Present Use Value Website

Fields/Open Lands Wildlife Habitat

To some extent, open lands provide a blank slate when it comes to habitat management. Privately owned grassland, cropland and Right-of-Ways each provide an early succession canvas that can be managed to meet a wide range of habitat objectives. Whether the landowner prefers to maintain production in the field or focus solely on habitat many opportunities exist to improve habitat for species of wildlife and pollinators which are experiencing historic population declines. Review the information below to learn what opportunities exist to enhance habitat on open lands.

Pastures and hayfields in North Carolina are typically planted with non-native species such as tall Fescue, Bermuda grass, Bahia grass or orchard grass.  While durable for forge production, these grasses provide little habitat benefit.  Often, pastures are over grazed, and hayfields are intensively harvested, further reducing habitat quality.  The following options are available for those landowners who have an interest in managing their property for wildlife habitat enhancement. 

Landowners who are primarily concerned with wildlife habitat should consider identifying portions of their property which can be dedicated to early succession habitat.  These areas could consist of blocks, corridors or entire fields where vegetation will be managed to maintain habitat for desired wildlife species.  Early succession species may be planted in these areas or fallow vegetation may be managed to enhance habitat.  The most difficult part of managing early successional habitat on private lands is often getting the landowner to accept that high quality habitat may look unkept.  Link to info on abandoned fields.

Several steps can be taken even when a landowner desires habitat enhancement but requires continued production from their pastures and hayfields. 

  • Native grasses such as big bluestem, Indiangrass, switchgrass and eastern gamagrass can be established as a portion of the forage base.  These grasses provide excellent nutrition for livestock and have a structure which improves wildlife habitat.
  • Livestock should be excluded from streams and ponds whenever possible.  Animal waste is detrimental to aquatic habitats and livestock are healthier when they have access to a clean water source.
  • Managing the grazing pressure of livestock in a pasture can result in more cover for ground nesting birds as well as more blooming plants for pollinators.  Proper stocking rates of livestock, multiple paddocks and rotational grazing are required if wildlife habitat is to be addressed with a prescribed grazing system.
  • Hay harvest can be postponed in portions of the field until after the primary nesting season.  Delaying harvest until late June will allow for most ground nesting birds to fledge their young.
  • Native grasses should not be harvested after August 1 to ensure that adequate regrowth is available for winter cover.  Not only will this benefit wildlife, resting these plants during the late summer and fall will increase plant vigor and productivity the following spring.
    •  Links to related publications

Cropland is a valuable commodity for both the landowner and the farmer that tends the land.  In the past small farms were scattered across North Carolina.  The day to day management of these farms resulted in hedgerows, fallow fields and “weedy” edges which were great for wildlife.  Today, modern equipment, herbicides, economic factors and public perception result in few fallow areas in the agricultural landscape.  To enhance habitat on cropland a concerted effort must be made by private landowners.  Implementing the following practices can enhance wildlife and pollinator habitat on working cropland.

Landowners who are primarily concerned with wildlife habitat should consider identifying portions of their property which can be dedicated to early succession habitat.  These areas could consist of blocks, corridors or entire fields where vegetation will be managed to maintain habitat not to exceed three years old.  Early succession species may be planted in these areas or fallow vegetation may be managed to enhance habitat.  The most difficult part of managing early successional habitat on private lands is often getting the landowner to accept that high quality habitat may look unkept.  Link to info on abandoned fields.

  • Several practices can be implemented when a landowner desires habitat enhancement but requires continued production from their cropland.
  • Dedicated habitat areas can be established.  Native grasses such as little bluestem, Indiangrass, switchgrass and tridens purpletop can be established as well as wildflowers.  When possible utilize odd areas of a field which may be difficult to farm.  Fallow vegetation can be managed in these areas if planting is not desired.
  • Incorporate native plant species into conservation practices such as grassed waterways, filter strips and buffers.  These practices already protect water quality and reduce soil erosion, incorporating native grasses and wildflowers can add wildlife and pollinator benefit as well.
  • Limit the mowing and management of waterways, filter strips and buffers during the nesting season.  Allowing this vegetation to stand through the spring and early summer will allow many species of wildlife to raise their first clutch of young.  When possible manage vegetation only once every other year to allow for brooding and winter cover. 
  • Buffer ditches and control ditch bank vegetation with selective herbicide rather than sidearm mowers.  Ditch buffers will protect water quality and help remove nitrates from surface water.  They will also reduce sedimentation of the adjacent ditches, thus increasing the interval between costly ditch cleaned outs.   
  • Utilize no till planting and cover crops whenever possible.  Not only does no till planting and cover crops benefit soil health, moisture attention and weed control, maintaining the crop residue can benefit wildlife.  Macro invertebrates such as worms, grubs, insects and larva thrive in this residue.  The macro invertebrates are a critical source of protein for many species of birds during the brooding process.  Without protein, young may experience improper development or starvation.
  • Links to related publications

“Establishing early successional habitat” is somewhat of a misnomer, all we really must do is sit back and watch.  While simply parking the mower or the bush hog is a critical step to enhance early successional habitat, there are opportunities to improve the species composition of dedicated habitat areas, thus improving the habitat quality.  Consider which of the following practices can best be incorporated into your management program.

Whether your plan is to manage fallow species or establish native vegetation undesirable species should be controlled using chemical or mechanical means.  Sod forming grasses such as fescue, Bermuda grass and Bahia grass can persist in a habitat area for a long period of time, having a negative impact on habitat quality.  Common agricultural weeds such as sicklepod and Cocklebur can behave in a similar fashion if not controlled before habitat enhancement activities.  Do not expect to control undesirables with a single herbicide application or single disturbance activity, it will likely take multiple treatments.

Simply breaking the ground can promote beneficial plants and enhance habitat.  Disking open areas in fall most often promotes species which include ragweed, partridge pea and lespedeza.  The hard seed these plant produce provide a valuable food source for many species of birds and mammals.  Spring disking usually increases the coverage of annual grasses such as volunteer foxtails and millets.  On agricultural sites disking may promote agricultural pest species such as sickle-pod, johnsongrass, and cocklebur. Selective herbicide may be needed to address these undesirable species. Disking should not be conducted during the nesting season which runs from Mid-April to Mid-September. 

  • In some instances, planting “new” vegetation is needed, is more attractive to landowners than managing fallow vegetation or may be required by program requirements.  While a more diverse habitat will result from managing the seed bank, we as humans seem to have a strong internal need to plant seeds.  Also, in has become our nature to want to see result quickly.  When preparing to plant an area use only the herbicide required to establish the desired species.  Select species and seeding rates which will address your objectives.  For forage production tall native grasses planted at 10-12 pounds of seed per acre is not uncommon.  For songbirds or Bobwhite quail, 3 or 4 pounds of short native grass and 4 or 5 pounds of forbs per acre will prove effective.  If pollinator habitat is a goal, 2 or 3 pounds of short native grass and 8+ pounds of wildflowers per acre is not uncommon.

Managing early successional habitat is a great example of humans verses nature.  Without disturbance land naturally wants to transition from grasses, to saplings, to forest.    Historically, the disturbance required to maintain early successional habitat came from human or natural fire, weather events, herds of grazing animals or cultivation.  Aldo Leopold summed it up when he wrote that the five tools needed for conservation are "the ax, the match, the cow, the plow and the gun."  Today, North Carolina’s landscape is void of large ungulates, land ownership trends typically restrict large scale use of prescribed fire and the ax and plow have become so efficient that they leave little for wildlife.  What “just happened” in the past, now requires purposeful management.  The following methods can be incorporated into a habitat management program to enhance early successional habitat and benefit the species which require this declining habitat.

Whether your plan is to manage fallow species or establish native vegetation undesirable species should be controlled using chemical or mechanical means.  Sod forming grasses such as fescue, Bermuda grass and Bahia grass can persist in a habitat area for a long period of time, having a negative impact on habitat quality.  Common agricultural weeds such as sicklepod and Cocklebur can behave in a similar fashion if not controlled before habitat enhancement activities.  Do not expect to control undesirables with a single herbicide application or sold disruption, it will likely take multiple treatments.

  • Disking should not be conducted during the nesting season which runs from Mid-April to Mid-September.  To provide a mosaic of habitat blocks or strips should be on a 2 or 3-year rotation.  Where possible disk along contours to reduce erosion risk.  Soil conditions and land use history may dictate how heavily the soil should be cut during disking.  Dense stands of grass may require heavier disking that land which has recently come out of ag production.  Results should be evaluated and modified in subsequent treatments as need.
  • Prescribed burning is the preferred method of managing early successional habitat.  It removes thatch, controls undesirable woody growth and returns nutrients to the soil.  It is the “natural” way of managing vegetation.  Care should be taken to ensure stay within containment lines and smoke does not become a nuisance to neighbors.  Experienced professionals should be hired to conduct burns until the landowner gains their own experience.  Early successional burns can be patchy to allow for habitat and species diversity.  Even burning small blocks can have a positive impact.     
  • Mowing is the least desirable, but sometimes required, method of early successional management.  While cutting the vegetation somewhat mimics large herds of grazing animals the thatch generated can act as mulch to suppress annual herbaceous vegetation.  Mowing also favors perennial cool season grasses and promotes stump sprouts of tree species.  Mowing should not take place during the primary nesting season of April 15th through t September 15th.  To best enhance habitat utilize mowing in correlation with burning, disking or selective herbicide application.       
    • Links to related publications

Utility right of ways and access easements offer linear openings that must be maintained in early succession vegetation to ensure they can meet their intended use, utility transmission or property access.  With proper management these early successional ribbons can provide valuable wildlife habitat across the landscape.   Right of ways can be as narrow as 50 feet, or a few hundred feet wide, and run for miles across the country side.  The linear nature allows these areas to serve as travel corridors between fragmented habitats across the landscape.  Managing right of ways and easements with a combination of disking, selective herbicide application and mowing can enhance the habitat quality where they cross your property.  It is critical to communicate with the company that owns the right of way as well as the company that manages the right of way to ensure that your efforts are not stifled by their periodic vegetation control practices.  Communication, cooperation and good signage will likely be required to better manage habitat on right of ways that cross your property.

  • Links to related publications

“The best of both worlds” and “variety is the spice of life” are both clichés which describe edges.  Edges, also known as ecotones, are defined as the area of transition between two biological communities, or more simply, where two or more habitat types come together.  The most basic example of this is where a forest and a field meet.  Wildlife that frequent these areas can reap the habitat benefits of the forest as well as the field.  The melding of habitat types along an edge generally result in more plant diversity which translates into more wildlife diversity.  

  • Modern agricultural and forest production practices often lead to an abrupt or “hard” edge.  An abrupt change from field to forest narrows the transition zone limiting habitat benefit.  To improve edge habitat, management can take place in the field, in the forest, or both.  Field edges, which are often the least productive part of the field, can be taken out of production in favor of early succession habitat.  Introduced grasses such as Bermuda and fescue should be killed, and field borders be allowed to go fallow or a mixture of native grasses and forbs be planted.  In the forest edge, trees can be cut down, girdled, killed with herbicide or harvested to improve wildlife habitat.  This treatment will allow more sunlight to reach the forest floor, promoting saplings, forbs, grasses and briars. Enhancing and maintaining edges will result in a wider, more natural transition from production field, to herbaceous vegetation, to shrub-scrub, to forest.  The increased habitat diversity in this area will make it more useful to a more diverse group of animals.           

Wetlands and Ponds

Wetlands can be described as an area where water covers or saturates the soil for an extended period of time. A few types of wetlands include: marshes, swamps, natural pools, pocosins, bogs, Carolina bays and manmade impoundments. The quantity of water and period of saturation influences the vegetation growing in these unique habitats. You can find wetlands throughout North Carolina from the mountains to the coast. Wetlands are an essential part of our ecosystem providing natural filtration for our water, flood protection, recreational opportunities, and habitat for wildlife. Wetlands may be best known for providing habitat for migrating birds. Birds such as ducks, geese, swans, and shore birds use wetlands to rest and feed as they travel south to their wintering habitats. However, the diverse characteristic of wetlands across the state sustain an array of common and rare plants and animals. Bog turtles in the mountains, marbled salamanders in the piedmont and gopher frogs in the sandhills are just a few species which must have wetlands to survive. Water is surrounded by life and where wetlands occur you will find an array of birds, reptiles, mammals, amphibians, mollusks, crustaceans, and fish.

Natural wetlands are those that developed on the landscape with little or no human influence. There is a myth often associated with wetlands that says, “doing no management is the best thing we can do to maintain these ecosystems”.  While most of these wetlands will sustain themselves by natural means, the reduction in wetland areas and changes on the landscape warrant giving these natural systems a little bit of help.  There are numerous management options which can improve your wetland based upon the current condition and the type of wildlife you wish to provide habitat for.

To find more details on the type of wetland found in North Carolina visit:

Swamps

Swamps are generally found in natural flood plains located in the piedmont and coastal plain. You can expect to see standing water for much of the year and with some area holding water year-round.  Areas that have been flooded for many years may be void of trees with grasses, sedges and rushes being the dominate vegetation.  Newly flooded or areas with less prolonged flooding may be more of a forest.  Tree species expected to be seen in or on the edge of a swamp include cypress, red maple, water oak, swamp white oak, blackgum,  sweetgum, water tupelo, sycamore, and others.

Often swamps are created by natures engineers, and our largest rodent, the beaver.  The North American beaver is a vital member of a swamp ecosystem. In fact, beavers are refered to as keystone species, because they crate habitat used by other wildlife.  A beaver dam, and the pond they form, provide critical habitat for wildlife including waterfowl, wading birds, reptiles, amphibians, otters and mink.  Beavers are viewed as pests by some, but if your land management goals include a healthy aquatic ecosystem efforts should be made to keep these animals around.   

Management: Most often beaver management questions are not “how do I attract beavers”, but rather “how do I get rid of them or limit their impact”.  Water control structures are slightly modified, or specially designed drainage pipes used maintain a certain water level.  Managing the water level in a beaver pond can promote herbaceous vegetation which provides a food source for waterfowl. Often coined “Pond Leveler” these pipes are strategically placed to control water height in a beaver pond. Varying the depth of water and the period/duration of flooding can impact the type and quantity of vegetation growing in a swamp. 

Selective timber harvest in a swamp can provide diversity in the understory, seldom found in a closed canopy forest.Typically, habitat diversity results in more wildlife species utilizing a specific stand. Group selection harvest identifies small sections of forest to be clear-cut for commercial return. The small clear-cuts will allow sunlight to reach the ground or water and will provide an area for vegetation to grow. This type of timber harvest will benefit canopy dwelling species by retaining tall standing trees, while also providing food and cover for understory and ground dwelling species.

Where timber harvests are not practical, or not desired by the landowner, a more surgical approach can be used to open the canopy of a forested swamp.Small canopy gaps can be created by simply felling or killing individual or clusters of trees.Felled trees will provide basking logs for reptiles and structure for amphibians.Dead standing trees, known as snags, provide nesting sites for species like woodpeckers, squirrels and wood ducks, just to name a few. Snags also hold insects that insectivores will feed on. Two techniques for creating snags are girdling and the hack and squirt method. Contact your local wildlife biologist for more information. (Hyperlink or insert WRC contact PDF?)

Additional information to assist you in managing swamps and beaver ponds can be found at:

Marshes

Marshes are areas of land that are saturated at high tide or when an area is flooded. They are dominated by grasses, sedges, and rushes which are all types of herbaceous vegetation. You can find marshes at transition between water and land. Marshes can be found in fresh or salt water, on the edges of streams, lakes, and estuaries. Marshes provide critical areas of nesting, escape cover, and food for a variety of animals.

Management: Management strategies for marshes include controlling invasive species, creating open water, and prescribed burning. Non-native invasive plant species can out compete and choke out native herbaceous plants in these fertile wetlands.  Mechanical removal and selective herbicide application can both be effective tools for controlling these botanical invaders.  When using herbicides in aquatic situations it is critical that herbicide be labeled for aquatic use and that all label directions are followed.

Open water is an essential component of a marsh, providing areas for many different species to feed, sleep, or even breed. Depending on scale, removal of woody vegetation or setting back the succession to create openings can be completed with the use of heavy equipment, hand tools or herbicides. In some instances, prescribed burning can be a great way to remove thatch buildup, control woody species and encourage new green growth that many species select to feed on. Contact your local biologist for more information. (Hyperlink or insert WRC contact PDF?)

Check out the article below to learn the benefits of having a controlled burn in your marsh:

  • Insert coastal marsh burning PDF

Natural Pools

Natural pools are characterized as depressions in the ground that hold water for a period of time but are dry part of the year.   Usually these pools hold water during the winter and spring, are dry during the summer and refill with water in the late fall. These pools provide critical breeding areas for several species of amphibians and insects. The intermittent pools are so essential to these species because they tend to be free of fish, which prey upon amphibian eggs and larvae. Water sources to fill natural pools include stream overflow, rain, or groundwater.

Interested in learning more about existing pools on your land? Check out the link below:

Pocosins

Pocosins are found in the coastal plain and can be described as having acidic, nutrient poor, organic soils where the groundwater keeps the soil saturated except in severe drought. Typical vegetation is a dense stand of waxy shrubs and woody vines. You can expect to find pond pine, Atlantic white cedar, loblolly pine, and several bay species growing here.

Management: These areas should be maintained in a diverse native vegetation instead of converting to production-oriented monocultures.  Carefully conducted timber harvests can maintain species diversity and habitat quality by opening the forest canopy, allowing sunlight to reach understory vegetation.  The group selection harvest technique identifies small sections of forest to be clear-cut for commercial return. The small clear-cuts will allow sunlight to reach the ground or water and will provide an area for vegetation to grow.

 Pocosins were likely maintained by naturally occurring fire before European settlement.  Great caution must be used with burning pocosins, or any area with organic soils as the soil itself can burn.  Consult with an experienced burner if you plan to burn sites with organic soils.  

Considering each tier of the forest vegetation when planning and implementing management of a pocosins. Retain mature trees while providing suitable habitat for ground and mid-story dwelling species.Another option is to create snags. Snags are dead standing trees that provide for many species like woodpeckers, squirrels, wood ducks. The snags hold insects that insectivores will feed on and provide shelter within small excavated holes in the tree called cavities. A couple of techniques for creating snags are girdling or the hack and squirt method. Contact your local biologist for more information. (Hyperlink or insert WRC contact PDF?)

Carolina Bays

Carolina Bays are natural depressions in the earth that are surrounded by an upland “rim”.   Concentrated in southeastern North Carolina these wetlands typically have sandy to fine clay soils. While large bays such as Lake Waccamaw may hold water year round.  However, most tend to have standing water for only part of the year, drying up during summer months.  Many Carolina Bays have been drained by ditching for commercial farming or timber production. 

Easily identified on air photos, the origin of the elliptical shaped Carolina Bays has long been debated.  Theories as to how they were made include meteor strikes, artesian springs and paleo-natives peat fires.    While the origin of Carolina Bays may still be uncertain their importance to local wildlife cannot be denied.    The bays which are still intact provide important breeding habitat for frogs and salamanders, because many of these wetlands rarely contain fish which are predators to amphibians.

  • Management: Consider pine management techniques (Hyperlink doesn’t work currently) such as thinning, group selection, and prescribed burning when managing your Carolina Bay. Carefully conducted timber harvests can maintain species diversity and habitat quality by opening the forest canopy, allowing sunlight to reach understory vegetation.  Considering each tier of the forest vegetation when planning and implementing management of a Carolina Bay will retain mature trees while providing suitable habitat for ground and mid-story dwelling species.  Contact your local biologist for more information. (Hyperlink or insert WRC contact PDF?)

Mountain Bogs

Bogs are formed by a combination of groundwater seepage and blocked overland runoff.  Changes in land use has resulted in a decline in acreage of this habitat type in North Carolina.  It is estimated that historically there could have been up to 5000 acres of bogs in North Carolina.  Changes in land use and grazing practices have resulted in about 500 acres existing today.  This type of wetland is moist but not typically flooded other than following rain events.  It is found over organic or mineral acidic soils. You can expect to find plants like sphagnum moss, grasses, sedges, rushes, cinnamon fern, and various types of pitcher plants growing in this unique habitat type.  Woody shrubs and trees will quickly invade these sites without periodic disturbance. Too many trees and shrubs not only shade out beneficial herbaceous vegetation, but can also impact hydrology due to removing water through transpiration.  Bogs are vitally important to species like bog turtles, four-toed salamanders, and alder flycatchers.

Management: To best manage bogs control woody plant encroachment, control invasive species, maintain surface water and groundwater hydrology (using ditch plugs, temporary dams, level spreaders, or other engineering devices), and restoration native herbaceous vegetation.  Excluding livestock from the bogs is important, but limited grazing can be a critical management tool.

Manmade wetlands generally lack the diversity of natural wetlands, as they are designed and installed with a specific species or activity in mind.  Ponds for example may be designed to hold water for irrigation, provide recreational opportunities or simple provide an esthetically backdrop to your home.  No matter the primary intent for building a manmade wetland they serve as wildlife habitat in the rapidly changing landscape of North Carolina.    With a little effort, or in some instances less effort manmade wetlands can serve as home to a wider range of wildlife. 

Fish Ponds

Whether referred to as a “fish pond”, a “farm pond” or just “the pond” these wetlands seem to be the one that most people are familiar with.  Ponds are one of those features on the landscape that attract us as humans.  We may swim in a pond, fish in a pond, explore around a pond, kayak on a pond or picnic next to a pond.  Each of these activities are a great way to have some family fun or just enjoy a little time in the outdoors. But if we dig a little deeper, ponds are their own mini ecosystem including fish, plants, turtles, frogs, dragonflies, birds and many other living and non-living components.  Considering the components of the ecosystem as you manage your pond and surrounding area will provide improved opportunities for fishing or simple wildlife observation.

  • Constructing a pond: If you do not already have a pond and wish to construct one you should seek professional guidance.  Many factors can impact the expense of construction and the long term success of the pond.  Some soils will not hold water, allowing water to seep under or around the dam or water control structure.  Various water control structures are available and could be customized depending on your objectives.  Constructing a pond is a serious project which may impact natural wetlands, requiring permits for the Army Corp of Engineers.  Reach out to experts to assist with permitting, design, construction and management before you get heavy equipment on site.    Contact your county cooperative extension office or local soil and water district for further instruction.
  • Management:  In pond management, as with any other natural resource you need to define the management objective.  If you want to catch fish from your pond, what species?  Do you need to kill existing fish population to reach your objective or can the existing species be managed to improve the health of the population?  For intensively managed ponds the only species that should be selected are a combination of largemouth bass, red eared sunfish, hybrid sunfish, bluegill, and channel catfish. Not all species listed must be included. Usually it takes about 2 years for the fish to get established. Be sure to harvest an adequate number of fish to maintain your goals. It is much easier to keep up with maintenance harvests instead of starting over once the population gets out of control. Fish samples will need to be taken to keep an idea of population dynamics. Taking water samples can determine if your pond will benefit from fertilizer or lime.

Esthetic beauty is in the eye of the beholder, however a pond that is too “clean” around the edge may limit biodiversity, thus limiting the efficiency of the ecosystem.Allowing native shrubs, sedges and rushes to grow along the edge of the pond (not on the dam) will provide structure of insects and amphibians to reproduce.Adult amphibians and insects, as well as their larva, are an important food source for many aquatic species.Submerged structure should be considered as well. Stumps, roots, rocks or trees provide cover for prey species and predators alike.Adding natural or manmade structures can help improve the productivity and enjoyment of your pond.Contact your for further information on pond management.

Additional information on establishing and managing your pond look at

Information on controlling weeds and invasive plant species in your pond can be pound at

Waterfowl Impoundments

  • Waterfowl impoundments are specifically designed to hold water during fall and winter duck seasons then be drained during the summer months. Generally, the water is contained with mounds of dirt surrounding the area called dikes or berms. A water control structure or device is installed in the berm to allow the water level to be manipulated throughout the year.    
  • Establishment: When looking to build a waterfowl impoundment there are a few questions that must be asked.   Am I in a good flyway area? Do I have soil that will hold water? Do I have a natural water source, or will I need a pumping method? What type of vegetation am I looking to manage for? The best site to utilize is one with the correct type of soil and a water source that doesn’t require pumping. Interested in constructing an impoundment? Check out the NC Partners Program to see if you are a good fit.
  • Management: Water control structures that are slightly modified drainage pipes are used not only to lower the water but can also be used to raise it. Water control is key when being able to manage for waterfowl. By having control of the water level, you can draw that level down to plant “hot foods” such as corn, millet, or milo.  Often a better alternative is to managing natural vegetation to enhance moist soil or submerged aquatic vegetation. Your water management plan will be centered around both your water control capabilities and the type of vegetation you want to manage for. Be sure you are following the water quality regulations in your area. Consider improving habitat quality with the use of approved herbicides to control invasive species. Contact your local biologist for more information. (Hyperlink or insert WRC contact PDF?)

Ephemeral/ Vernal Pools

Small pools which hold water during the winter and spring can be very important for amphibians.  These pools provide critical breeding habitat for a host of salamanders, toads and frogs.  We can create these small wetlands where natural pools are lacking on the landscape.   Focus on the surrounding habitat, not just the pool itself.  Make sure there is debris, such as decaying logs, branches and rocks in the area, to provide terrestrial cover for the amphibians.  Likewise, the pool itself should have decaying leaf litter, coarse woody debris, living vegetation and rocks in it to provide cover and a substrate to attach egg masses to.       

Small pool wetlands can be created by plugging ditches, installing water control structures or using plastic liners to hold water.   More information concerning the creation of vernal ponds can be found at

Backyard Wildlife

Landscaping with Native Plants

One of the most important choices we can make in our own backyards that will benefit wildlife is to select native plants over non-native (exotic) plants when landscaping. 

Non-native plants are those that have been introduced, either accidentally or intentionally, to an area outside of their native or natural range.  Many of the plants we commonly landscape with in North Carolina are exotic, and while many of them may not be problematic for wildlife, some of them can be very detrimental.  These problematic species, known as invasive species, can grow and reproduce so quickly and aggressively that they can impair or destroy wildlife habitat, alter our environment (soil chemistry or hydrology), and even increase wildfire risk. 

Invasion by exotic species is considered by some scientists to be the second greatest threat to biodiversity in the world.  According to the Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health, we have over 2,800 exotic species in North America, over half of which are plants.      

You may be familiar with some of the invasive plants commonly used for landscaping in North Carolina: periwinkle, mimosa, English ivy, Chinese wisteria, nandina, pompous grass, and Bradford pear, to name a few.  Most of these species can become naturalized or spread to other areas – either by birds, wind, or rainwater.  To prevent invasive species from becoming a problem for wildlife, the best thing to do is to landscape with native plants.  Many of these invasive plants have similar looking native plant alternatives, so if you really want to plant wisteria, consider planting the native wisteria instead of an exotic variety.

Our native plants have long evolved with our native animals in natural ecosystems and communities, providing the necessary nutrition, cover/shelter, and nesting substrate essential to the survival of the plants themselves as well as the animals they support.  To provide the most benefit to wildlife, select a diversity of native plants – diversity in structure, height, bloom color, bloom period, fruit type and production period, etc.  The more plant diversity you have, the more diversity of wildlife you can support!

An easy way to increase the native plant diversity in your backyard is to plant a small pollinator garden.  Even a small garden plot or a container garden can provide critical nectar, nesting, and overwintering sources for our native bees, beetles, moths, butterflies, and other insects.  These insects are beneficial in many ways – not only do they help pollinate our agricultural crops and backyard gardens, they also control and help prevent pest outbreaks (such as aphids, spider mites, and mealybugs), and they provide a critical food source for songbirds, bats, and other insectivorous wildlife species that live in or visit urban areas.  In addition, all of the native stinging insects (think bees or wasps) are very docile and not aggressive towards humans. 

North Carolina residents have many resources available to them to help find native plant alternatives, including bloom periods and color for native wildflowers, fruit production and type for native shrubs, and local plant nurseries that provide sources of native plants.  Contact your local cooperative extension office for more information.

Nesting Boxes

Many different wildlife species use cavities in trees, such as gray squirrels, red-tailed hawks, southern flying squirrels, wood ducks, screech owls, prothonotary warblers, Acadian flycatchers, and eastern bluebirds, just to name a few.  These cavities in live or dead trees – called den trees and snags, respectively – provide critical shelter and cover for animals to escape predators or inclement weather, and provide essential roosting, nesting, or hunting spots. 

Because of aesthetic and safety concerns, many people do not want snags or den trees in their backyard, understandably.  However, if you have a large enough backyard or natural area behind your home, in which snags or den trees can be safely left in place, you might want to consider protecting these trees for wildlife.  Natural snags can provide some of the best foraging habitat for woodpeckers and other insectivorous songbirds, and if large enough (in diameter), the nesting cavities excavated by woodpeckers, once abandoned, can be used by raccoons, squirrels, owls, and many other wildlife species for roosting and cover. 

One other option, if you do not or cannot keep snags or den trees in your backyard, is to provide replacement habitat by installing artificial cavities, also called nest boxes.  Construction plans for many different types of nest boxes can be found online at the links below.  You may also find many of these nest boxes or structures available for purchase at local hardware stores or plant nurseries.  When installing these boxes on your property, be sure to install predator guards and entry/portal guards so predators and non-desired species cannot access or use the box.  For example, a predator guard attached to a pole on which a songbird house is attached can be used to deter snakes from accessing the nest box, or a metal entry/portal guard affixed to a songbird house can be used to prevent squirrels from enlarging the entry hole and accessing the nest box.  When possible, try to place nest boxes away from hanging vegetation and attach them to individual poles (metal or wood) rather than trees. 

When it comes to artificial cavities, sometimes we also need to think outside the box.  Consider using broken ceramic pots to create toad abodes or hanging PVC pipes on your backyard fence to provide cover for treefrogs.  You may even want to create a bee hotel out of a small log or bundle of bamboo or install a large wooden platform for ospreys or eagles if you live near a lake or reservoir.  There are many creative ways to provide habitat for our backyard wildlife!

Citizen Science

Citizen science, a relatively new field, is the collection of data relating to the natural world by members of the general public, typically as part of a collaborative project with professional scientists.  A citizen science project can involve one person or millions of people working together towards a common goal.  Public involvement can be in data collection, analysis, or reporting.  Although projects vary in the degree and scope of collaboration between science researchers and volunteers, many projects follow a typical pattern: projects are designed by researchers and then advertised to the public – seeking and training citizen volunteers to help collect data – after which any data collected by the volunteers is analyzed by researchers.  Volunteers always receive some degree of training in project procedures to ensure consistency and accuracy in data collection.

Citizen science projects can be very useful for conservation organizations because of the sheer amount of work hours that can be volunteered by citizens as compared to the limited sets of agency or organization staff.  For example, over 160,000 bird watchers assist scientists at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society in creating a real-time snapshot of bird distribution worldwide by simply counting the number and species of birds in their backyards on a four-day period once a year.  Volunteers spend as little as 15 minutes of their day during this period watching and recording birds in their backyards, which then provides an immense data set on birds that would be practically impossible for these conservation organizations to collect on their own.

So, if you like to spend time outdoors and watch wildlife, you may want to consider volunteering for one of the many citizen-science projects sponsored by conservation agencies and organizations, like the NC Wildlife Resources Commission.  Here are just a few citizen science projects from which you can choose:

Fish Ponds

Whether referred to as a “fish pond”, a “farm pond” or just “the pond” these wetlands seem to be the one that most people are familiar with.  Ponds are one of those features on the landscape that attract us as humans.  We may swim in a pond, fish in a pond, explore around a pond, kayak on a pond or picnic next to a pond.  Each of these activities are a great way to have some family fun or just enjoy a little time in the outdoors. But if we dig a little deeper, ponds are their own mini ecosystem including fish, plants, turtles, frogs, dragonflies, birds and many other living and non-living components.  Considering the components of the ecosystem as you manage your pond and surrounding area will provide improved opportunities for fishing or simple wildlife observation.

  • Constructing a pond: If you do not already have a pond and wish to construct one you should seek professional guidance.  Many factors can impact the expense of construction and the long term success of the pond.  Some soils will not hold water, allowing water to seep under or around the dam or water control structure.  Various water control structures are available and could be customized depending on your objectives.  Constructing a pond is a serious project which may impact natural wetlands, requiring permits for the Army Corp of Engineers.  Reach out to experts to assist with permitting, design, construction and management before you get heavy equipment on site.    Contact your county cooperative extension office or local soil and water district for further instruction.
  • Management:  In pond management, as with any other natural resource you need to define the management objective.  If you want to catch fish from your pond, what species?  Do you need to kill existing fish population to reach your objective or can the existing species be managed to improve the health of the population?  For intensively managed ponds the only species that should be selected are a combination of largemouth bass, red eared sunfish, hybrid sunfish, bluegill, and channel catfish. Not all species listed must be included. Usually it takes about 2 years for the fish to get established. Be sure to harvest an adequate number of fish to maintain your goals. It is much easier to keep up with maintenance harvests instead of starting over once the population gets out of control. Fish samples will need to be taken to keep an idea of population dynamics. Taking water samples can determine if your pond will benefit from fertilizer or lime.

Esthetic beauty is in the eye of the beholder, however a pond that is too “clean” around the edge may limit biodiversity, thus limiting the efficiency of the ecosystem.Allowing native shrubs, sedges and rushes to grow along the edge of the pond (not on the dam) will provide structure of insects and amphibians to reproduce.Adult amphibians and insects, as well as their larva, are an important food source for many aquatic species.Submerged structure should be considered as well. Stumps, roots, rocks or trees provide cover for prey species and predators alike.Adding natural or manmade structures can help improve the productivity and enjoyment of your pond.Contact your for further information on pond management.

Additional information on establishing and managing your pond look at

Information on controlling weeds and invasive plant species in your pond can be pound at

Waterfowl Impoundments

  • Waterfowl impoundments are specifically designed to hold water during fall and winter duck seasons then be drained during the summer months. Generally, the water is contained with mounds of dirt surrounding the area called dikes or berms. A water control structure or device is installed in the berm to allow the water level to be manipulated throughout the year.    
  • Establishment: When looking to build a waterfowl impoundment there are a few questions that must be asked.   Am I in a good flyway area? Do I have soil that will hold water? Do I have a natural water source, or will I need a pumping method? What type of vegetation am I looking to manage for? The best site to utilize is one with the correct type of soil and a water source that doesn’t require pumping. Interested in constructing an impoundment? Check out the NC Partners Program to see if you are a good fit.
  • Management: Water control structures that are slightly modified drainage pipes are used not only to lower the water but can also be used to raise it. Water control is key when being able to manage for waterfowl. By having control of the water level, you can draw that level down to plant “hot foods” such as corn, millet, or milo.  Often a better alternative is to managing natural vegetation to enhance moist soil or submerged aquatic vegetation. Your water management plan will be centered around both your water control capabilities and the type of vegetation you want to manage for. Be sure you are following the water quality regulations in your area. Consider improving habitat quality with the use of approved herbicides to control invasive species. Contact your local biologist for more information. (Hyperlink or insert WRC contact PDF?)

Ephemeral/ Vernal Pools

Small pools which hold water during the winter and spring can be very important for amphibians.  These pools provide critical breeding habitat for a host of salamanders, toads and frogs.  We can create these small wetlands where natural pools are lacking on the landscape.   Focus on the surrounding habitat, not just the pool itself.  Make sure there is debris, such as decaying logs, branches and rocks in the area, to provide terrestrial cover for the amphibians.  Likewise, the pool itself should have decaying leaf litter, coarse woody debris, living vegetation and rocks in it to provide cover and a substrate to attach egg masses to.       

Small pool wetlands can be created by plugging ditches, installing water control structures or using plastic liners to hold water.   More information concerning the creation of vernal ponds can be found at

Landscaping with Native Plants

One of the most important choices we can make in our own backyards that will benefit wildlife is to select native plants over non-native (exotic) plants when landscaping. 

Non-native plants are those that have been introduced, either accidentally or intentionally, to an area outside of their native or natural range.  Many of the plants we commonly landscape with in North Carolina are exotic, and while many of them may not be problematic for wildlife, some of them can be very detrimental.  These problematic species, known as invasive species, can grow and reproduce so quickly and aggressively that they can impair or destroy wildlife habitat, alter our environment (soil chemistry or hydrology), and even increase wildfire risk. 

Invasion by exotic species is considered by some scientists to be the second greatest threat to biodiversity in the world.  According to the Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health, we have over 2,800 exotic species in North America, over half of which are plants.      

You may be familiar with some of the invasive plants commonly used for landscaping in North Carolina: periwinkle, mimosa, English ivy, Chinese wisteria, nandina, pompous grass, and Bradford pear, to name a few.  Most of these species can become naturalized or spread to other areas – either by birds, wind, or rainwater.  To prevent invasive species from becoming a problem for wildlife, the best thing to do is to landscape with native plants.  Many of these invasive plants have similar looking native plant alternatives, so if you really want to plant wisteria, consider planting the native wisteria instead of an exotic variety.

Our native plants have long evolved with our native animals in natural ecosystems and communities, providing the necessary nutrition, cover/shelter, and nesting substrate essential to the survival of the plants themselves as well as the animals they support.  To provide the most benefit to wildlife, select a diversity of native plants – diversity in structure, height, bloom color, bloom period, fruit type and production period, etc.  The more plant diversity you have, the more diversity of wildlife you can support!

An easy way to increase the native plant diversity in your backyard is to plant a small pollinator garden.  Even a small garden plot or a container garden can provide critical nectar, nesting, and overwintering sources for our native bees, beetles, moths, butterflies, and other insects.  These insects are beneficial in many ways – not only do they help pollinate our agricultural crops and backyard gardens, they also control and help prevent pest outbreaks (such as aphids, spider mites, and mealybugs), and they provide a critical food source for songbirds, bats, and other insectivorous wildlife species that live in or visit urban areas.  In addition, all of the native stinging insects (think bees or wasps) are very docile and not aggressive towards humans. 

North Carolina residents have many resources available to them to help find native plant alternatives, including bloom periods and color for native wildflowers, fruit production and type for native shrubs, and local plant nurseries that provide sources of native plants.  Contact your local cooperative extension office for more information.

Nesting Boxes

Many different wildlife species use cavities in trees, such as gray squirrels, red-tailed hawks, southern flying squirrels, wood ducks, screech owls, prothonotary warblers, Acadian flycatchers, and eastern bluebirds, just to name a few.  These cavities in live or dead trees – called den trees and snags, respectively – provide critical shelter and cover for animals to escape predators or inclement weather, and provide essential roosting, nesting, or hunting spots. 

Because of aesthetic and safety concerns, many people do not want snags or den trees in their backyard, understandably.  However, if you have a large enough backyard or natural area behind your home, in which snags or den trees can be safely left in place, you might want to consider protecting these trees for wildlife.  Natural snags can provide some of the best foraging habitat for woodpeckers and other insectivorous songbirds, and if large enough (in diameter), the nesting cavities excavated by woodpeckers, once abandoned, can be used by raccoons, squirrels, owls, and many other wildlife species for roosting and cover. 

One other option, if you do not or cannot keep snags or den trees in your backyard, is to provide replacement habitat by installing artificial cavities, also called nest boxes.  Construction plans for many different types of nest boxes can be found online at the links below.  You may also find many of these nest boxes or structures available for purchase at local hardware stores or plant nurseries.  When installing these boxes on your property, be sure to install predator guards and entry/portal guards so predators and non-desired species cannot access or use the box.  For example, a predator guard attached to a pole on which a songbird house is attached can be used to deter snakes from accessing the nest box, or a metal entry/portal guard affixed to a songbird house can be used to prevent squirrels from enlarging the entry hole and accessing the nest box.  When possible, try to place nest boxes away from hanging vegetation and attach them to individual poles (metal or wood) rather than trees. 

When it comes to artificial cavities, sometimes we also need to think outside the box.  Consider using broken ceramic pots to create toad abodes or hanging PVC pipes on your backyard fence to provide cover for treefrogs.  You may even want to create a bee hotel out of a small log or bundle of bamboo or install a large wooden platform for ospreys or eagles if you live near a lake or reservoir.  There are many creative ways to provide habitat for our backyard wildlife!

Citizen Science

Citizen science, a relatively new field, is the collection of data relating to the natural world by members of the general public, typically as part of a collaborative project with professional scientists.  A citizen science project can involve one person or millions of people working together towards a common goal.  Public involvement can be in data collection, analysis, or reporting.  Although projects vary in the degree and scope of collaboration between science researchers and volunteers, many projects follow a typical pattern: projects are designed by researchers and then advertised to the public – seeking and training citizen volunteers to help collect data – after which any data collected by the volunteers is analyzed by researchers.  Volunteers always receive some degree of training in project procedures to ensure consistency and accuracy in data collection.

Citizen science projects can be very useful for conservation organizations because of the sheer amount of work hours that can be volunteered by citizens as compared to the limited sets of agency or organization staff.  For example, over 160,000 bird watchers assist scientists at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society in creating a real-time snapshot of bird distribution worldwide by simply counting the number and species of birds in their backyards on a four-day period once a year.  Volunteers spend as little as 15 minutes of their day during this period watching and recording birds in their backyards, which then provides an immense data set on birds that would be practically impossible for these conservation organizations to collect on their own.

So, if you like to spend time outdoors and watch wildlife, you may want to consider volunteering for one of the many citizen-science projects sponsored by conservation agencies and organizations, like the NC Wildlife Resources Commission.  Here are just a few citizen science projects from which you can choose: