Story and Photos by Dave Moreland
As a deer biologist and hunter I am often thought of as being somewhat narrow-minded (having antlers on the brain) and that my only concern is with managing the habitat for deer. However, on our property in East Feliciana Parish all wildlife is given equal opportunity and the bluebirds, indigo buntings, butterflies and insects that visit our sunflowers are enjoyed as much as the deer. While most of my hunting is directed toward whitetails, I have found that the best habitat management for deer is management that maintains good diversity in both the forest and the fields.
In the mid-’80s when the Farm Bill was initiated along with the Conservation Reserve Program, many landowners planted their cropland and pastures with pine trees. Hardwood stands of timber were cut and replaced with pine. The idea was that pine is the money tree and the landowners would reap the benefit. However, with the crash in the housing market and other economic issues, many stands of pine timber that need to be cut are still standing due to low demand. A dominant pine forest does not maintain the diversity of a mixed pine/hardwood stand, and in Louisiana some deer herds in various regions have actually declined due to the intense pine management that has been applied to the land.
A managed pine/hardwood forest can be productive not only for deer but for many species of wildlife. The beautiful zebra swallowtail butterfly uses the pawpaw tree as a host plant, and so a hardwood component that contains this shrub is necessary for this insect. Trifoliate orange is a shrub that occurs in our forests (often considered an invasive plant), and is a host plant for the giant swallowtail butterfly. The tiger swallowtail as well as these other species feed on a variety of wildflowers in the forests and fields.
Planting food plots is one aspect of deer management. However, these plantings are focused often solely on deer, and the benefit for other species is low, especially when the entire plot or field is planted with only one forage species. I like to maintain diversity with my plantings; generally I will plant in strips, have winter grass and clover strips, spring and summer strips, and have some strips that just contain native plant species. Deer will eat a variety of native plants that also provide food for many other species. Verbena is one of the native plants that deer relish and the flowers are a source of food for the swallowtails. While the site may look like a big weed patch, these other species of wildlife are thriving in the habitat. The rats and field mice that use such patches are food for the hawks and owls, as well as the gray fox that we see on occasion.
My spring and summer plantings include grain species such as sorghum and millet, sunflowers and several species of legumes. These strips attract many species of birds including turkey and quail, not only to feed on the seed these plants produce but to eat the insects that are associated with them. The bluebirds on the property have nested several times this year in the boxes and are frequently seen catching insects. I saw an immature red-headed woodpecker (one of my favorite birds) the other day that was feeding around the big oaks scattered in the field.
So while deer hunting is important, one does not have to go overboard and direct all the habitat management work toward deer. A diverse habitat will maintain the deer herd and provide the plant diversity that meets the needs of many other wildlife species.