How You Can Help Wildlife At Home
All wildlife need the basic habitat requirements for survival: food, water, shelter and space. Nature will provide these and the animals will come but if you would like to increase your land's ability to be a home for many different species of wildlife there are a few things you can do that will benefit all creatures on your lands.
Leave as much of your land wild, natural and un "improved". This is what wildlife want--they have no use for what we call improved land.
Stop spraying chemicals all over the place--"weed" killers, insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers--all these toxins are designed to KILL life--and that is not a good thing. Killing one species will create an imbalance and in the habitat and therefore more problems. These toxins can also kill other creatures and build up in the environment creating future problems. Imagine how much cleaner your land will be once you stop using chemicals--and think about how much more money you will have to spend on creating wildlife habitat for your furry, feathered, scaly and warty friends. If you must use fertilizers please use a natural manure based type that is natural and beneficial for the land.
Leave standing dead trees, old rotten logs and brush piles in the forest. Standing dead trees are often hollow and these cavities provide sheltering and nesting areas for countless species of wildlife from birds and bears to bats, bugs and snakes. Rotting logs on the ground, also called nurse logs, provide homes for wildlife as well as nutrients for the soil to "nurse" young new plant growth.
Provide water sources for wildlife. Birdbaths, ponds, creeks and even rainwater catchment basins--anything that holds water so that it is available for wildlife to drink. Consider creating a small wetland area for amphibians such as frogs, toads and salamanders. You can find lots of information online about how to create wetland areas for the benefit of wildlife.
Build brush piles for wildlife. Many different species of wildlife use brush piles for shelter, nesting sites, feeding sites and over-wintering sites. To make a great brush pile first search for a good site that has moderate air movement--not an exposed hilltop or low place. The soil should be somewhat dry but not compacted or saturated. Take advantage of natural barriers such as trees and shrubs and select the moist side of the barrier for your brush pile.
Start your pile with a few big rocks and logs spaced apart as such that there is some air movement and small animals will be able to create dens in amongst the rocks/logs. Then toss all fallen limbs, leaves, garden and grass clippings and so on into the pile in a random order--no stacking. Brush piles of different sizes are great because they provide choices for different species of wildlife. Build brush piles in many different areas on your land placing some near the edge of woods and fields, near water, in the middle of the woods and so on so they can act as habitat islands for many different species of wildlife.
If you rake leaves in the fall just pile them on your brush piles and they will act as insulation for the critters hibernating inside. If you must burn your leaf pile then do so just after raking--if you wait a few days animals such as box turtles may move into the leaf pile and die in the flames.
If you have allot of rocks consider building some good sized rock piles in areas that receive some morning or late afternoon sun--the reptiles will love these areas. Dry stacked rock walls are great for this also as they provide lots of nooks and crannies for lizards, snakes and toads to live and forage in.
If you have a swimming pool or water feature in your yard please cover it when not in use or provide at least one wildlife escape ramp for animals that may fall into the pool while attempting to get a drink.
Keep you domestic animals--especially cats and dogs--in a fenced area or in the house. Cats and dogs are our friends but they are also are very effective predators and will kill and eat any critter they can get their teeth on.
Install nest boxes for birds and bats.
Pond habitat. If you have ponds or lakes on your land, consider creating underwater habitat structure for fish and half submerged logs as basking spots for turtles and snakes.
Mowing. If you mow areas of your land one of the most beneficial things you can do--especially for box turtles and other reptiles--is to adapt your mowing schedule to benefit wildlife. Mowers kill untold numbers of wild creatures every year with box turtles and snakes being near the top of the list of those in the most danger.
The sad thing is that mower operators probably have no idea that turtles are even present in the fields that they are mowing. The loud "crack" that they occasionally hear while mowing is just attributed to a stray rock or stick--not a 50 year old turtle munching on a Strawberry.
The above scenario actually happened to an old old male box turtle from Earthshine.
This type of incident happens when ungrazed fields and green spaces are allowed to grow uncontrolled and mowed only occasionally and in the interim the grasses and "weeds" grow thick and tall. This mix of tall grass, blackberries and other edibles provides excellent cover and good forage for small animals such as insects, snails, slugs, rodents, birds, rabbits, lizards and snakes. Many of these plants and small animals are on the box turtles list of favorite foods so the box turtle soon follows. Most of these animals can either move fast enough to escape the advancing mower or are small enough to hide in burrows--but not the box turtle--at the first sound of the mower their instinct tells them to pull inside their shell and hide and they are then hit by the mowers blades or crushed under the tires of the tractor. While most of these turtles are killed some do survive and heal but during their convalescence they are very vulnerable to predators and infection from the open wounds caused by their unfortunate encounter.
What can be done? This human caused mortality can be greatly reduced if land owners and mower operators follow one or more of these simple suggestions:
1-Mow more often. Try not to let your grass grow so high that it lays over and creates good hiding places for critters such as box turtles. Shorter grass is not as attractive to box turtles since it does not provide very good shelter.
2-During the spring, summer and fall mow during the hottest part of the day--between 12 and 3 is best. Box turtles are most active during the morning and evening hours when the humidity is higher and it is a bit cooler. Once it heats up they will either retreat to the nearby forests or bury themselves in the soil during the heat of the day. Turtles sitting in forms are lower to the ground thus the mowers blade may miss hitting them especially if you raise the blade a few inches higher.
3-Raise your mowers blade. If you raise your blade above 5 inches you will greatly reduce hitting box turtles...the drawback is that you will have to mow more frequently.
4-Patrol your fields for turtles before you mow and keep them in a cardboard box in a cool shady place until you are finished mowing. Yes, this option is very time consuming but it can be a good way to get some quality exercise but please remember to put the turtles back exactly where you found them after you mow. If there is no remaining cover where you found the turtle place it under the closest shrub/bush or in the nearest woods and it will find its way home.
5-Get some goats. Goats are excellent natural mowers and they will keep your grass short so you never have to waste gas, money and time to mow again. They are also friendly creatures that are fun to watch, produce excellent fertilizer for your grass and milk and cheese for you and your family.
Just implementing one or more of these mowing measures will help you prevent unnecessary box turtle and wildlife deaths on your lands. Please try to do you part to help protect these animals that are unable to help protect themselves from our human ways.
These are a few methods that you can implement to benefit the wildlife on your lands. Many more general and species specific documents may be found online and in various publications.
If you have any questions about wildlife conservation on your lands please feel free to contact me.