By Jeff Berti
Every winter, when the temperature drops near zero and ice and snow cover the landscape, conservation agents throughout the state receive calls from concerned citizens asking what they can do to feed and protect wild animals, (usually a flock of turkeys or a covey of quail that appear to be starving.)
Nature will always take its toll on wildlife during the winter months, but we can reduce the number of dead animals by improving wildlife habitat on private lands. A sure-fire method of feeding and protecting wildlife next winter is to develop and implement a wildlife plan on your land.
The best time to begin implementing your plan is in the late fall and winter, when your farm is at its least productive stage. Look at what your farm has to offer. Is there enough cover? Would animals benefit from a food plot placed along your timber? These questions can be answered by watching birds and animals this winter, when harsh weather forces them to seek shelter and food. If you notice a lack of food and cover, chances are you need to implement a plan of action.
Conservation agents are always glad to work with landowners to develop or improve wildlife habitat. If the problem gets too big, the Department of Conservation also has several Private Lands biologists that can cure an ailing farm.
Sharing land with wildlife isn’t expensive. Farmers can let fence rows, gullies and other areas of the farm not used for domestic animals grow up in brush and weeds. This past summer, I saw several bulldozers working in the Grundy county area, “cleaning up” some of the best wildlife habitat in the country. Although most good cover is not pretty to the farmer’s eye, it can sure be beneficial to an animal. Bulldozers also destroy massive amounts of natural food for many species of small animals. One push of a dozer blade can wipe out an entire covey of quail.
It’s usually a year or two after a farmer has “cleaned up” his farm that I get a phone call asking me what happened to all the quail and rabbits that he used to have. One common suggestion is that the hawks and owls are eating them. Most of the time the farmer does not want to take part of the blame for the loss of animals on their farm. Hawks and owls will eat some small game animals, especially if they don’t have any cover to hide in.
One common misconception is that you can’t plant food plots on CRP ground. Many times landowners are afraid to do anything to their CRP land, fearing that they might not receive a payment or disqualify themselves from the program. By obtaining prior approval, landowners can plant a certain percentage of their CRP into food plots each year.
Woodcutters can do their part, too. Why not leave the tree branches piled into a neat brush pile instead of burning them? Brush piles can provide dense cover for many small animals. And when you cut a tree, try not to cut the den trees. Den trees are the large, old trees that are usually hollow in the middle. Many small animals including squirrels and raccoons use these trees to make their homes.
In the middle of the winter, there isn’t much a person can do to help wild animals survive. The time for action is next spring, when planting time arrives. In the meantime, you can start helping the animals next year by making your plans this fall and winter.
By Jeff Berti