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Scott Rall: Bugs and thin grass are great habitat elements

Scott Rall

Daily Globe outdoors columnist 

So what does wildlife need to survive and thrive?

This is a great question with hundreds of answers, depending on what species of animal you are referring to. A black bear has much different habitat needs than a pheasant in the Midwest.

If we ask the question regarding wildlife in general, the answer does encompass to some extent these three parts. They need a place to sleep/roost and be safe from predators. They need a place to raise their young and they need food and water (a place to feed).

A good wildlife property has all three of these elements in close proximity to one another. This reduces the need for the animals to travel long distances. This also reduces the energy they need to expend to reach these areas and reduces the amount of time they are in the open and susceptible to predation by the many sources they fend off every day. A deer property or a pheasant property in southwest Minnesota will have all three.

Specific habitat needs differ with the species and the age of those species. Let’s talk about the specific habitat needs of pheasants, my favorite bird species.

Pheasant chicks rely heavily on insects in their first few weeks of life. Most ground nesting birds like pheasants are in this position. Where do the insects live and where can a pheasant chick find them? We all think that insects live everywhere, and when it comes to mosquitoes this is pretty much true.

When it comes to the insect needs of a pheasant chick this is not the case. A stand of monolithic grass like smooth brougham has very few insects.

One of the most important food sources for a pheasant chick is grasshoppers. A thick stand of grass will not hold the greatest number of these insects. What it takes to attract insects is broadleaf plants. These can be weeds, or flowers or other plants that are called forbs. It is a mix of different broadleaf plants that attract the highest number and variety of insects that pheasant chicks need not only to survive but to thrive. Low quality habitat may allow a species to survive, but this same low quality habitat will not allow that same species to thrive.

This is why you see flowers and forbs are being added to every decent grassland planting being done across the Midwest today. Fence lines used to be this broadleaf habitat mecca.

Every fence line had a four-foot wide strip of grass and weeds that grew where the sprayer didn’t reach and the planter couldn’t plant. These are fast becoming a thing of the past. The fence is removed and a white stake is erected its place. This allows the producer on each side where the fence once was to get an extra row of crop and the sprayer can reach every inch. These areas were easy for chicks to traverse and provided them cover as they foraged.

Broadleaf plants are also what bees need. It is the flower or blossom that bees use in their day-to-day chores. The state even passed a law awhile back that tells the DNR to make bees and their habitats part of every planting done on state lands. I have included the language below:

Sec. 12. [84.973] POLLINATOR HABITAT PROGRAM. (a) The commissioner shall develop best management practices and habitat restoration guidelines for pollinator habitat enhancement. Best management practices and guidelines developed under this section must be used for all habitat enhancement or restoration of lands under the commissioner’s control.

(b) Prairie restorations conducted on state lands or with state funds must include an appropriate diversity of native species selected to provide habitat for pollinators throughout the growing season.

So pheasants chicks need insects but they are not the only ones. I spent some time on Okabena-Ocheda watershed property this weekend and there were many grassland birds present on a section of restored native prairie. There must have been a ground nest near where I was standing. Moma bird had an insect in her mouth and was waiting to feed it to her young. She landed on a sunflower about six feet from me and would not leave.

I moved on and she returned to her feeding duties. Song birds need insects, too. There is a new phenomenon that is developing over the past 10 years or so. With the rise of infestations of soybean aphids there is now a huge effort undertaken yearly to spray those bean acres with a pesticide to kill the pest.

The unfortunate part of that production activity is that the killing of the soybean pest also kills every other insect in the path of the spray. This includes bees, butterflies, grasshoppers and other insects that are beneficial to the ecosystem. With the current corn-bean rotation this means that about 50 percent of every crop acre gets sprayed. It will be interesting to see if this will have any long-term negative impact on the environment.

When I was new in the habitat business 30 years ago I thought that the thicker the grass the better it was for wildlife. My novice thinking at that time is totally false.

Another thing that flowers and forbs do, besides providing for the insect needs of young birds, is that they open up the understory of prairies and grasslands. When you get a monolithic stand of grass (all one species) the stem counts tend to be very numerous. This means that the stems of the grasses are so close together that there is no room for a pheasant chick to walk between them. A hen pheasant will walk through the grass with the chicks following behind. As mom advances, if some of the chicks cannot keep up — she will in many cases just keep walk away and the chicks with no track shoes will perish.

Having distinctly different seedings on different sites and planting a wide variety of grasses and flowers creates pathways and slender openings through these grassland habitats. These openings or lanes provide the opportunity that chicks need to better navigate while foraging.

On an 80 acre spot that I restored, it has four very different mixes of grasses and flowers. This allows wildlife to find what every type of cover they desire without having to leave the property boundaries. Some areas have short grass that is not very thick. Other spots have thick grass for winter survival.

The key to good habitat is diversity. This cannot be achieved with the cheapest seed mix available. It might save you a few dollars initially but the end result is far less productive for wildlife. Now when I see some bare ground I no longer want to go plant some more seed in that spot. It takes this important variety and small openings to get the most benefit from every acre of undisturbed grasslands.

I have been seeing a few pheasant chicks so not all of them got washed away in the big rains of June. Only time will tell how many survived and how much of the fall population will be the result of additional nesting attempts by the hens who lost their nests due to the flooding.

I did see on a state wildlife management area 15 baby turkeys with two hens. They were out on a path drying off from the morning dew. We will never be a turkey hunting spot in Minnesota because we do not have enough of the right type of habitat for turkeys, but it was fun to see them.

Native habitat in the prairies is just as diverse as the rain forest. The closer you get the better you understand the needs of the creatures that live there.

In addition to a better understanding of the needs of wildlife you also get a much greater supply of ticks. What an added bonus.