Deer habitat gets all the press. But there are many simple projects you can undertake to improve habitat for small animals. As a bonus, working on habitat for rabbits and squirrels will also benefit whitetails and turkeys.
One of the nice things about small animal habitat projects is that you don’t need a lot of land to work with to improve the animals’ living conditions and increase their abundance. Even if you don’t own land, chances are a neighbor, friend or relative does. Most landowners who lease deer hunting rights to you would also be happy to see some of these improvements made to their property. Be sure to discuss your goals, plans and expected benefits with them, however, before you begin.
Here are some projects I’ve used on my land in West Virginia to increase rabbit and squirrel populations and improve habitat for chickens, quail, and turkeys at the same time.
1) Feather a field border
When small, rich canopy farms were the norm, this would have been a useless project. There were areas of brush in every corner of the field and along the forest borders. But with modern large-scale agricultural expansions and mechanized methods of pure farming, few of these areas remain. Fix this by building your field edges and corners, making a graded transition from mature woodland to open fields. Rabbits do not like to be exposed in open areas and need these areas to be able to safely use neighboring fields without fear of a hawk or coyote attack.
Borders should be 25 to 50 feet wide, transitioning from taller shrubs near the forest to lower shrubs, reeds, and useful grasses near the open field. If you want to take an easy approach, you can simply stop cultivating the edge of the field. Over several years, weeds, seedlings, shrubs and useful herbs will grow.
Broomsedge, which often takes over in fallow fields, is especially useful for cottontails according to Virginia Small Game Project Leader Marc Puckett. “It’s usually found near where the berries are growing, providing food and cover for the rabbits,” he says. “Rabbits love it. When I was younger we used to shoot around that combination. They also love sumac. They eat the bark close to the ground in the winter.”
In addition to not cultivating the edge of the field, you can speed up the process by planting other valuable shrubs along the border of your fields. Good varieties include crabapple, raspberry, red berry, red or silk dogwood, honeysuckle, indigo bush, sumac, chinkapi, and lespedeza.
Another way to improve these border areas is to clear-cut some trees along the edge of the forest, leaving only a few mast-producing or economically valuable trees standing. Leave partially cut trees attached, just the bark, so they can continue to grow and provide food and cover for small game and birds. honeysuckle and vines will also grow and wrap around the tops of felled trees making a haven for small game.
2) Plant fruit trees for rabbits and squirrels
Both squirrels and rabbits like to eat fruit. Choose a low gentle slope or flat open area and plan to plant at least six trees to ensure cross-pollination. Cattle pastures, sweat fields, and natural pastures are good spots to plant. Make sure the site receives at least six hours of sunlight per day. Apples, pears, crabapples and plums are good choices. The date is the best of all.
To protect these trees while they are young, erect wire barriers or tree shields around them. Make sure they get water during the first few months. Once they are firmly established, add fertilizer every year.
3) Plant sawtooth acorns for small game
If you have a lot of open land with meadows and fields, dedicate some oaks. But not every oak. Most oaks take 10 to 20 years to produce mast. Sawtooth oaks begin to bear fruit in just 3 to 6 years. Plant 20 to 80 saplings 25 to 30 feet apart, where other oak trees aren’t present, and they’ll attract squirrels (and turkeys) like a magnet. Uncultivated fields are good places for a grove of sawtooth oak. After six months add a 10-10-10 or similar fertilizer around the tree. Repeat annually at the outer edge of the tree’s crown as they grow. Garbage drinks are well suited for this targeted approach.
4) Disk strips or fields
Open fields can be valuable for small game, but not if they are overgrown with weeds or noxious grasses, such as fescue, which provide no food or cover. Chances are that some seeds from useful native plants and flowers are hidden in the soil, which have been outcompeted by less desirable plants. Release them and add to the plant diversity by tilling or laying strips in the sweat fields. This also has the benefit of reversing the age structure of the vegetation, preventing open ground from eventually growing into forest and promoting native plant diversity – all pluses for small game species.
Pasture or sweat fields are great places to do this. Disc a strip 10 to 20 feet wide, then go over 40 to 60 feet and lay another strip, alternating across the field. Rotate the strips you place in the disk on a three-year schedule to allow plant succession to occur and a variety of native foods to appear. Don’t go too deep – a few inches will break the grain and release useful seeds like blackberries, raspberries and brooms.
5) Mini plant food plots
Food plots aren’t just for deer. If you’ve never jumped a rabbit out of a patch of clover, you haven’t done much cottontail hunting. Place these plots next to a transition corridor at the edges of the field that you have created along a forest border or in a natural clearing in the forest.
Kill the existing vegetation thoroughly with a glyphosate herbicide and then sweep the soil several times after the existing vegetation dies. Make sure you have a firm and smooth bed.
Ladino clovers such as Imperial Whitetail Clover or Non-Typical Clover are good choices because they last three to six years. To get the best harvest, first plant wheat or oats as a nurse crop at a depth of ½ to 1 inch, then cultivate it. Just before a rain, scatter clover seed over the wheat planting.
Rabbits will eat the young wheat shoots all winter long. In the spring, after it grows 12 to 18 inches, mow it down and the clover will take over. As an option, leave some growing wheat belts. The clover will continue to bloom, but the wheat seeds will provide more food and also attract game birds such as pheasants, partridges, doves and turkeys.
Plant small berries and clover in logging roads. Grains such as sorghum, buckwheat and millet are all valuable for small game and birds. Mix them with some red and red clover and spread them on the wooden paths or on the ground with logs. To ensure that the seed gets enough sunlight, “daylight” the paths by cutting some trees along the borders.
6) Create a water source for the mini game
Small game animals require water every day. Attract them to your land with a resource they can rely on 12 months of the year. Small ponds can be easily dug with a knife on a small tractor. Find low ponds that drain the side hills and dig through topsoil to reach a clay bottom that will hold water. State and county governments can provide advice, information on land and any necessary permits. Your local Soil Conservation Service office is a good starting point.
If you want something cheaper and faster, consider damming a small stream in wet weather so that it holds water year-round. Use rocks, logs and build small dams by hand or tractor. They don’t have to be pretty, just able to hold water all year round.
Another choice is to dig up a small area and place a plastic kiddie pool or livestock tank in it. Make sure you have a branch in the water that leads to dry land in case a rodent or rabbit falls in so it can escape. You may need to refill the tank from time to time. If it dries out, rabbits and squirrels will look elsewhere.
7) Make a small clear cut
Squirrels like oaks, walnuts, beeches and other masts. But they need diversity in their habitat, and rabbits absolutely need more cover than a mature open forest provides. Meet their needs with small clear cuts that provide cover and food.
Leave some high-quality mastwood in the cut, as well as dogwood, but remove almost everything else. You will probably need to hire a wood cutter or firewood for this project. If you try it yourself, be as safe as you can. Cutting is dangerous.
Plan irregular shapes and plots of ¼ to 2 acres. Growing seedlings and shrubs such as raspberries, blackberries, honeysuckle and other valuable species will soon grow as increased sunlight encourages new low growth. Have the sawyer push some of the tops into little piles for shelter for the rabbits.
Read further: Tired of your tree ornament? Go out and bounce some bunnies
8) Create brush piles for the rabbit cover
Even if you don’t clear any woods, you still need brush piles. If a large portion of your habitat is open, creating strategically placed brush entanglement will be extremely beneficial to rabbits. Cut down low-value trees like red maples, some all the way, some partially. Place them at odd angles to provide corridors under the pile where a rabbit can hide but still have some escape routes nearby.
Also add some scrub pines or cut and pull red cedars from nearby fields to provide animals with denser conifer cover for the winter in addition to clipped deciduous trees. Several small brush piles are better than one large one, which can attract coyotes. When harvests become scarce on a rabbit hunt, reach for one of these brush piles or another habitat improvement you’ve made. You’re almost guaranteed to go home with a bulge in your game bag.