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Managing Natural Vegetation

The keystone of wildlife management is the manipulation of vegetation to provide food and shelter for target species of wildlife. Wildlife management in North America is as old as the country and has been practiced for as long as there has been a human population. Native Americans and early settlers practiced woodland clearing, planting, and burning to manipulate vegetation both for their own food and to help manage wildlife. Both availability of game and game population health were targets of these early management practices.

Pine stand with vegtation understory.

Vast numbers of exotic species of plants and animals have been imported into this country for hunting and wildlife management purposes. Few animals have become naturalized, however, many plants not only have come to call North America home, but have become a severe problem by outcompeting natural plants in the environment. Some exotic plant species now form the basis of livestock forage (to the detriment of wildlife) and a few exotics have become useful in wildlife management. The scope of this article will be to discuss some of the beneficial native plants and how to manipulate the environment to promote them.

Weedy fields not only provide food for wildlife, but also abundant insect populations important for quail and turkey chicks.Turkey in the weedy understory of a forest.

The recipe is relatively simple and calls for 1) ample sunlight to grow the target plant community, 2) soils compatible for the plant types and 3) seed source either currently existing in the soil or planted. The benefits of utilizing native vegetation over exotic imported plants are many and include; the fact that these plants have evolved here to grow in our conditions; the wildlife have evolved to become dependant on them either for food, cover or nesting habitat; the seed stores are usually in place in the soil and only require the correct conditions to grow. These natural plants are usually a more consistent food and cover source for wildlife than exotics and due to the multitude of plant types, provide for more diversity in the environment and therefore more stability.

GrassesGrasses like indian grass and broomsedge provide seeds  and nesting habitat. Forbs like smilax provide food for a variety of wildlife.

One of the most familiar plants to most people are the grasses. These are easily confused with the grains (wheat, oats, etc.). While the vegetation of grains are highly selected for food by deer, turkeys, quail, rabbits, etc., grasses are not often selected for and eaten by southeastern wildlife. When buffalo and elk roamed Alabama grasses were eaten, but these species are gone. Some exotic grasses are planted for wildlife (corn, bahaia grass, etc.) and their seed value is generally a positive influence. Other exotic grasses (bermuda grass, fescue, ryegrass, etc.) can be a serious detriment.

Native grasses include panic grasses, paspalums, Indian grass, switch grass, broomsedge, etc.. While the vegetation is used very little for food by wildlife, the seeds of various grasses are extremely important to some animals. Small seeds are used by turkeys, quail, many songbirds, and especially chicks of a variety of birds. Equally important is the structure of native grass stands. Warm season native grasses (those growing in the summer) tend to grow in clumps, while exotic pasture grasses (bahaia, bermuda, and fescue) grow in mats, inhibiting wildlife movement through the stand and preventing other native plants to grow with them (these problems are also terribly expensive to control but necessary if native plants are to become the target of a management effort). Native grasses have lots of bare ground in between clumps allowing travel lanes for wildlife and encouraging other weeds to grow with them. Although these grasses don't provide huge amounts of food for wildlife, their structure is ideal for cover in winter and they irreplaceable as nesting habitat for quail and other songbirds.


Many people are familiar with legumes due to their availability in local groceries and gardens. Beans and bean producing plants are excellent wildlife foods, being high in protein and other nutrients. Both the seeds and the vegetation provide excellent quality food sources for wildlife. A few exotic legumes have become problems in the southeast such as Kudzu, etc., but most introduced legumes have not naturalized and are planted successfully for wildlife management. Native legumes, however, have the potential to have more impact on the native wildlife due to the abundant variety available and grown in properly managed woodlands and fields. Correctly managed woodlands can produce more legume forage and available acreage than planted fields unless vast amounts of acreage is planted.

Legumes (in conjunction with forbs) undoubtedly provide the vast majority of food consumed by wildlife, especially deer. While typical outdoorsmen (and women) understand the importance of mast (both hard and soft) in a deer or turkey=s diet, many do not realize the importance of providing abundant understory vegetation in the woodlands. While hard mast is available during @ 3 months of the year (hunting season), there is another 9 months during which deer and other wildlife need to fill their bellies, and legumes and forbs provide the bulk of that diet. Typical native legumes include Partridge pea, dollarweed, butterfly pea, beggarweed, lespedeza, etc. all providing moderate to excellent wildlife forage and seeds. These plants also provide important sources of food and reproductive structure for insects and butterflies.


Forbs include all other herbaceous vegetation (plants that are not woody or which grow from seeds or rootstocks each year) or weeds. There is a huge variety of forbs and many, if not most, are important wildlife foods. These are the weeds that deer feed on all spring, summer, and fall, while acorns are not available, providing the bulk of the diet of deer and other wildlife. Vegetation, seeds, nectar, and vegetation structure are all important qualities of the various species of forbs available to wildlife. In addition, the aesthetic qualities which we humans find important (a hillside of black-eyed susans blooming in the fall under an open stand of pines) are enhanced with a broad variety of forbs in a properly managed environment.

Typical native forbs which wildlife find important include: Florida pussley, verbena, ragweed, greenbriar, St. Andrew cross, goldenrod, wild sunflowers, and pokeweed, just to mention a very few. Many of these plants are extremely important to various species of butterflies. Introduced forbs include species like honeysuckle, which has become an important deer forage, but can become a nuisance in the woodlands.

Other Native Plants Thick shrubby areas provide cover and nesting habitat but soon grow out of food value without burning.

Other native plants important for wildlife include various species of shrubs which provide vegetation, seeds and cover. Plants such as wax myrtle provide seeds and nesting habitat for many birds. Beautyberry (French mulberry) provides seeds for over 40 species of songbirds, good forage for deer and is eaten by small mammals. A plant like strawberry bush is so highly selected by deer that it often disappears from the understory even at moderate deer densities. Hawthorn and blueberry thickets provide excellent songbird fruit and nesting habitat in addition to some deer forage. Some introduced shrubs such as privet and autumn olive can become a habitat management problem and require expensive chemical treatments to alleviate.

Plants such as blackberries and vines are often overlooked as wildlife habitat. Various vines include Smilax or catbriar, Virginia creeper, trumpet creeper, and grapes, and most provide seeds and forage for wildlife. Blackberries are important in providing an excellent source of high-sugar Mixed shrubs, grasses and briars provide a nice mix of food and nesting cover. food source for nesting mammals and birds, especially quail, and also provide high quality cover for birds, small mammals, other thicket-loving wildlife. Smilax is a highly selected deer browse year-round and also provides a good fruit for a variety of game and non-game birds.


Managing for native vegetation

Now that we are familiar with some of the types of native vegetation important for wildlife and more thoroughly understand why it is required in abundant supply, we can look at how to promote this habitat type. The types of plants we are looking for are often categorized as "early successional" species. This means that they are usually found in the few years following some type of disturbance. As disturbed areas grow from grasses and weeds to shrubs, tree saplings and finally trees, it is termed "succession". The idea is to capture the early stages of succession in perpetuity through thinning, burning, discing, etc.. The key ingredient in this recipe is sunlight. Without sunlight hitting the ground, all of the energy is taken up in the treetops and all plant growth occurs there, depriving all the forms of wildlife dependant upon low vegetation.

Techniques to maintain natural vegetation include thinning, establishing "edges", burning and disking.

There are basically two ways to create this scenario; one is in openings and fields and the other is by creating an "open" woodland with lots of sunlight. Some of the above described plants will be found more in openings and some in woodlands. For instance, Butterfly pea will often be found in an open stand of pines which are regularly burned, and usually is found climbing on a small sapling killed by fire. It is rarely found in any type of "field" system. Ragweed, however, is mostly found in field systems maintained by regular disking, but is rarely found (in any substantial stands) in woodlands. Maintaining this openness is done with different techniques depending on whether a field or a woodland is being maintained.

Openings and fields

Maintaining openings in woodlands and fields is relatively simple. These areas receive 100% sunlight during the day and, therefore, annual plant growth is substantial. Without disturbance, shrubs and saplings will take over the field and it will become A grown up, eventually to turn into woods. Soil disturbance like disking every few years sets back the clock and allows plants like ragweed, horseweed, verbena, mints and the like to occupy the site for a few years. Soil disturbance in different seasons also creates conditions for different plants to colonize sites (see Table 1). Disking in winter promotes a complex dominated by ragweed and partridge pea (both highly important for quail and songbirds), while disking in summer often promotes grasses and Florida pussley (an important deer forage). Different locations and soil types are highly important to determining what types of plants respond in local areas and experimentation is encouraged! Grasses like broomsedge, indiangrass, panic grasses, in addition to blackberries, need a 2 or 3 years without soil disturbance to become dominant, and burning fields helps these plants take over.

Table 1. Quail food plants encouraged by discing at Tall Timbers Research Station in Florida. (Numbers are percent plant coverage as measured in the growing season after plowing time)

Plowing Time

Ragweed 30 25 1   7  
Doveweed & spurges 16 5 9 6 9 13
Partridge peas 11 8   2 4 6
Large-seeded Grasses 19 28 30 17 24 4
Florida pussley 6 11 44 51 40 3
Florida beggarweed 3 3 17 19 1 3
Pokeweed 1 2 2 13 8  
Cranesbill geranium 2 3   11 4 1
Blackberries* 26 11 15 29 21 22

* Blackberry and most other soft-mast species produce fruit most abundantly when disturbed on a 3-year cycle.

* Note particularly Ragweed, Partridge pea, large-seeded grasses, beggarweed, and blackberries.


Dealing with woodlands takes a different scope than fields. First comes the matter of getting enough sunlight to the forest floor. Thinning in pine stands accomplishes this if the stand is thin enough to make a difference. At minimum, 30% of the ground at high noon must be getting direct sunlight to grow the majority of the plants we are discussing and preferably a higher percentage of the ground gets sunshine. Hardwood stands are not suitable for maintenance of an open nature due to excessive branching and little ability to maintain the understory. The benefits in a pine stand, however, include better individual tree growth, lowered problems with insects and disease (especially pine beetles!), in addition to exceptional wildlife habitat. While disking and mowing can be used to maintain the understory in open pine stands, the best tool is prescribed burning. Burning sets back the growth of shrubs and young trees, prevents wildfire, keeps sunlight on the forest floor to grow a quality understory, acts as a fertilizer, and scarifies many of the seeds already in the soil allowing them to sprout.

Herbicides can also be used to control hardwood sapling and brush problems in an open pine forest. Selective herbicides which control hardwood sprouts, but do not damage good wildlife food and cover plants, are available. Usually, once applied to an area, it controls vegetation for several years allowing the stand to be burned less often while still retaining the habitat quality in the understory.

Abundant supplies of forage and cover are available in burned, open pine woodlands and this habitat type promotes many of the native plants of the south. Only the type of plants which occur primarily in bottomlands can be damaged utilizing burning. Historically, the majority of central and south Alabama uplands were naturally open, burned pinelands which supported the vast populations of deer, turkey, songbirds, herptiles, insects, and many of what now are endangered or extirpated (elk and buffalo) species. Arguably, this habitat type supports a larger variety of wildlife, more declining species and at healthier and higher population levels than any other habitat type in the state, if the understory is abundant and intact.