Charles Fergus loves nothing better than to rev up his walk-behind DR brush hog and mow his fields.
He’s not aiming for anything like a golf-course close cut, or a neat suburban lawn. Or even a nicely manicured pasture. He just wants to cut back the pencil-thick aspens and other trees that threaten to turn the two fields into forest.
Why? Because the pair of two-acre meadows, with their tall grasses and isolated old apple trees and thornapples, attract wildlife that his surrounding woods wouldn’t. He sees ruffed grouse feeding on the apple buds, watches monarch butterflies take nectar from the milkweed in the fall.
“I see wildlife in these habitats constantly. It gives me some visible rewards” for the hours spent trailing the DR. “It’s good payback,” said Fergus.
Fergus’ recently published book Make a Home for Wildlife: Creating Habitat on Your Land, Backyard to Many Acres, makes the argument that almost anyone, whether they have a thousand acres or a half-acre suburban house lot, can improve things for wildlife.
The book, published by Stackpole, is part how-to and part inspiration. The information about how to go about turning your property into a wildlife haven is interspersed with profiles of people and organizations that have done exactly that, and with readable essays about the animals that might take advantage of your work, from wood thrushes to weasels.
“I wanted to write a book that wasn’t just a reference book, but a book that was readable,” said Fergus.
Surveys of forestland owners consistently show that one of the primary reasons they own forestland is not for the money they might get from the sale of timber, but to be close to wildlife, It’s the same reason that people feed birds. Yes, we love our dogs and cats, but also like seeing wild birds, and feeding them has created a $5 billion industry.
Seeing wildlife is why I periodically keep about three acres of fields, of the 75 my wife and I own in New Sharon, Maine mowed to create a meadow: I’ve seen foxes, moose, deer, snakes, hawks. Had bears waddle through. I put up bird boxes that every year draw tree swallows and eastern bluebirds. In the woods I leave numerous standing dead snags for birds to nest in. The sapsuckers and pileated woodpeckers appreciate them. And when I cut firewood I sometimes fell deadwood so it will rot on the floor of the forest, providing shelter for salamanders and invertebrates. It is all about the wildlife.
Fergus has considerable expertise in creating wildlife habitat. He’s an author who also works as a writer and website developer for the Wildlife Management Institute, a respected non-profit focused on wildlife conservation. And he’s put what he’s learned into practice over the past few decades on two properties in two very different states.
He owned about 30 acres in Pennsylvania, basically all woods, he said in a telephone interview. He did thinning operations to shift timber growth into particular tree species and put up nesting boxes.
When he moved to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom 16 years ago and bought 120 acres, he “took on some more ambitious projects,” including “daylighting” apple trees, keeping the old fields in field-like condition and working in the woods. It’s been a labor of love, and, when Stackpole contacted him about writing a book on creating wildlife habitat he thought it would be an excellent idea to pass along some of his experience and those of other people he had talked with in his work for WMI.
While some people think that, to create habitat for wildlife you have to own a forest, Fergus’ point is that, no you don’t. Even if you have only a half-acre yard in a development you can work with that to benefit some animal, bird, reptile, amphibian or insect by planting something that they can use for food. A crabapple with small fruits that persist through winter, for instance, can help migrating birds. Certain native or blooming shrubs will serve to help pollinating insects like bees, moths or butterflies. A water feature will help frogs, birds and small mammals. Keeping part of your property, especially if it abuts woods, more natural, creating the “edge” habitat used by many birds and other animals.
“There are many things that folks can do,” he said. “It could be afforestation — creating a forest — or it could be easier, and make more sense, to create another type of habitat.”
As the studies have pointed out, there is something in us that harkens to connect with nature and planting, or mowing, or thinning or putting up bird-bat-butterfly houses, or digging a water feature as a way to share our space with the other creatures we share out planet with.
Yes, it can be a lot of work. But it gets us away from our electronic devices for a time, gives our muscles some real-world exercise, and provides substantive and visible benefits for the environment.
“I think many of us are looking for this kind of work because we want to make a difference and we get a lot of satisfaction,” Fergus said.
“There’s a keen desire in many of us to see wildlife. When we see wildlife or hear bird calls or see various butterflies visiting a garden we planted we confirm our ties to nature. And even in this day and age when there are so many distractions from nature, a lot of people have this connection to the land. This is a way they can do that. I also see that people have an interest in the problems wildlife are facing, whether climate change or development that inhibits habitat. A lot of people want to do their part, want to do something, and even if it is small, cumulatively you can make a difference.”
Fergus says that it makes the most sense for people to work with what they have, rather than try to create something that they would like to have out of the wrong raw materials: trying to transform a forested mountainside into a field to attract bobolinks isn’t going to work. And, if you have a backyard, turning it into a field might not be do-able, depending on what your homeowners’ association’s regs stipulate. But there’s always something you can do to make your property more wildlife friendly, he said.
When in doubt, seek help, Fergus counsels. There are a lot of agencies and organizations out there — he lays all this out in the book — with the expertise to work with landowners on crafting a wildlife-attracting oasis. You might start with your state university’s extension service, he suggests.
“The biggest challenge is getting enough information to take the steps you need to take, and understanding your property enough to make the right choices,” he said. “A little planning goes a long way.”
Depending on what you decide to do, it’s likely going to take some work. The shovel-chainsaw-brush cutter type of work. You should be prepared for that, but realize that any muscle soreness will pay off down the road. “When you actually get out and do it, the satisfaction provides pretty quick rewards,” Fergus said. “I think many of us are looking for this kind of work because we want to make a difference.”
But realize too that the trees you planted will take a little time to bear fruit, or the growing-in field you re-created may take a season or two to start drawing wildlife. In other words, take the long view. “If they look closely they will see more immediate results than they think. They should just bank on the idea that ‘if we build it, they will come,’ ” Fergus said. Have patience and trust in your planning, in other words.
Also, keep in mind that the animals, insects and birds out there don’t know what types of wildlife you want to attract. “You have to accept that you might attract some animals that you might not rather have,” Fergus said.
Create the right habitat, for instance, you might attract snakes, or skunks, or more deer than you ever thought existed. If you create a habitat to attract songbirds you might also attract sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawks that prey on those colorful little songbirds. It’s all part of the vast and wondrous play of nature. And by creating wildlife habitat, it’s a play that you’ve built the set for.
So, build it. They will come. Sit back. Enjoy the show.
An excerpt from Make a Home for Wildlife: Creating Habitat on Your Land, Backyard to Many Acres, by Charles Fergus:
The forest on our 30-acre property was about 60 years old, according to an elderly neighbor who had seen this section of Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Front logged join the 1930s. By the 1990s, when we were living there, the trees had grown back. Many of them were fairly large, but few were old or large enough to have developed the hollows in their limbs and trunks that great crested catchers, along with other forest birds such as screech owls and woodpeckers, use for nesting. So I built and put up half a dozen nest boxes. Flying squirrels hadn’t entered my mind— but there they were, attended against the oak’s rough bark, staring down at what was no doubt the first human they had ever seen. Their mother had probably given birth to them inside the box, and now they were almost old enough to venture out from its security and begin exploring the habitat into which they’d been born.
An animal’s habitat is the physical place where it lives. A good habitat provides a creature— whether a mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian, or insect—with the resources it needs to survive. In its habitat, an animal can grow from birth to adulthood, remain healthy, evade predators (at least for the most part), and shelter during harsh weather, and mate and reproduce.
Some animals are generalists, able to thrive in more than one type of habitat: White-tailed deer can live in large expanses of deep woods, in small woodlots, in thickets, in farmland, and in the suburbs and on the fringes of cities. Other creatures have more specialized habitat needs. The wood thrush, a migratory songbird with a beautiful utelike song, usually nests in mature forest where tall trees stand above an understory of smaller trees, shrubs, and low plants, with abundant leaf litter on the ground.
A good habitat will supply an animal with food, water, and cover. A wild creature needs these essentials within a physical area, or space, in which it can move about without exposing itself to excessive danger. The blend of food, water, shelter, and space determine an area’s habitat suitability for a species of wildlife or a suite of species.
Joe Rankin writes on forestry, nature and sustainability. He watches wildlife on his 75 acres of forest and field in Central Maine.