Creating Habitat for Small Game


By Robin Follette

Creating, maintaining and improving habitat for hunting will help small game move into an area and not only survive but thrive. It’s a good use of time in the off season, and creating habitat doesn’t have to be expensive or too time consuming. As urban sprawl increases creating habitat for small game becomes more important.

Habitat requires four factors – food, water, shelter, and space. Walk the area you’re considering working in and look for these four items. Look for signs of small game already living in or passing through the area. While you’re out there, think about what you want to attract or keep in the area. You’ll focus your work on improving the habitat already available and creating the missing factors.

mature trees for bare ground

Cottontail rabbits and snowshoe hares require similar habitat. You’ll find both at the edges of agricultural fields, overgrowing meadows, the woods, and strips of forest that separate open spaces and dense forest. They require protective cover thick enough to hide in and create a trail system to get from one place to another. Softwood trees with low, dense branches provide cover so leave a few of these trees during a timber harvest. Space the trees to allow full growth without creating a barrier between the sun and soil so that smaller plants can grow.

Log piles are sturdy, secure places for hares and rabbits to build nests and raise young. You don’t have to fell trees to create a pile if you have deadwood or blow downs already on the ground. Cut the logs into four-foot lengths and pile them three logs wide and high. Leave enough space between the logs on each end to allow them to come and go easily. Brush piles also work well. Pile a combination of hard and softwood branches six feet high. The brush will settle quickly at first then slowly over time. Adding another layer or two of branches each year will keep the pile useful for at least a decade. If you’re cleaning up a woodlot and have logs and branches, you can build the log pile and top it off with the branches.

log pile

If you don’t have enough logs to make planned structure, you can use short chunks from one tree. Cut the tree into pieces and toss them into a pile. Be mindful of an empty space large enough for a rabbit or hare but otherwise, just pile them up in an a-frame shape.

A dense riparian buffer separating wetland or a body of water from a field can provide excellent habitat for birds and small mammals. Allow young softwood trees to grow in the buffer to give cover, but remove those trees before they take over an area. Allow seedling trees to grow as replacements. In winter, the trees will provide cover and food. If possible, allow for 15 feet in width, and let the plants grow to be three to six feet tall. Raspberry and blackberry canes can be left to grow in the buffer to provide protection and food.

Squirrels will share habitat with rabbits and hares. They need taller trees for nesting and food. Cone, fruit and nut trees provide nesting space and food. Old, overgrown apple trees can be pruned back into production over time. If you don’t have fruit and nut trees, you should consider them for long term productive plots. I’ve planted oak, chestnut and hazelnut outside our food plot. They’ll feed the squirrels as well as turkey, bear, moose and deer. Wild apple trees, usually crabapples, are spread out across our 45 acre woodlot. We haven’t seen production from them yet but it won’t be many more years. Short term work now contributes to habitat for what might be the next hundred years or more.

Woodcock, also known as timberdoodles, choose wetlands, brushy fields, logging roads and clearings in young and established forests. They don’t prefer one species of tree over another but are a particular about young growth. In the spring the males need open space, their singing ground, to attract females. Leave mature softwood trees standing to provide bare ground for early arrivals during spring migration. Woodcock will make small holes with their long beaks while they search for earthworms.

Forest grouse (ruffed, spruce and blue) have a habitat requirement that’s a deal breaker. They must have hardwood trees they can bud (eat the buds) in winter if they are in a snowy region. Otherwise, their habitat demands are few. They prefer damp areas with brushy roadsides in mixed forests of hard and softwoods but need dry areas to successfully nest. They’ll eat beech and other nuts and fruit. If you find wounds in your fruit while they’re still on the tree, it’s likely to be peck marks from grouse. They’ll take several bites out of fallen fruit before walking on to the next piece. Turkeys have similar needs but have a much larger area for their habitat. They need mature trees that can withstand the weight of a rafter of large birds roosting overnight.

Grouse use logs for drumming. If your woodlot doesn’t have fallen trees, drop a few. One to two logs per acre, at least 12” in diameter and 8 to 14 feet long, should be dispersed throughout the forest, close to clearings.

ruffed grouse on drumming log

Water is vital. If you live in a wet area you’re all set. If not, look for a natural spring that can be developed as a watering hole for small game. Seasonal streams and vernal pools dry up in all but the wettest summers. If you don’t have a water source available in summer you should consider an artificial water feature. Shallow pans beneath a five gallon bucket that drips will work well. One drip per second will empty a five gallon bucket in about 24 hours. You can gauge the water needs for your area to determine how many small holes you’ll need to drip. Clean the pan each time you bring water to keep it safe for the small game.

Deer come to mind first when we think of food plots, but they’re a great food source for small game. If you can leave a dense buffer between the forest and food plot, you’ll encourage more small game into the plot. Bush hog the buffer every three to four years as needed. Adding fruit and nut trees to your food plot will provide a wider variety of food for small game, deer, moose, bear and anything else visiting the plot and offer a place for roosting birds. Let canes grow along the edge of the plot.

Space is the last factor in habitat. Assuming small game will multiply in a healthy habitat, they need space to spread out. There must be enough space for offspring to move out of the immediate area, find a mate and reproduce. When considering what kinds of small game you want to create habitat for, think about the space available.