April 06, 2023
By Dr. James C. Kroll
The average outdoorsman can delineate between wildlife habitat types broadly, easily identifying woodland, prairie, savannah or agriculture. But untrained eyes cannot always detect the strengths and weaknesses of said areas, nor their true benefit to wildlife.
White-tailed deer, for example, can exist in an extremely broad sampling of habitats, ranging from dry desert areas to flooded swamplands to extreme cold tundra. In-between these outer limits is virtually every type of natural area imaginable where deer exist. However, to exist isn’t to thrive. And after years of studying whitetail habitat and land management, leading biologists like North American Whitetail’s Dr. James C. Kroll, have learned to identify what differentiates poor habitats from quality ones.
What follows is an educational photo essay showing the eight critical elements of “the whitetail landscape.” e artwork is accompanied by descriptions, written by Dr. Kroll, explaining how these habitat elements allow deer to reach their maximum nutritional potential. A valuable tool for land managers who strive to better their property comprehensively, the following series educates on the true pillars of whitetail land work. — Haynes Shelton, Editor in Chief
Water is THE limiting factor for deer! A deer can go up to two weeks without eating, but only a day or two without water. A deer needs a half gallon to full gallon of water a day; some of which can be obtained from forage. However, water must be available every day of the year, especially in winter.
When folks think about water for deer, they naturally envision beautiful, clear water streams. In reality, deer do not like fast running streams. Why?Because they make too much noise and put deer at risk of predation! A deer just as likely would drink from a deep cow track as a stream.
So, in considering habitat improvements for your deer, you should think about dependable water sources, even if in the form of an artificial watering station, consisting of a shallow trough filled periodically by hand or even connected to a tank using a hose and oat valve. Since the deer landscape is about 80 acres in many areas, water should be supplied at this density.
The emphasis on deer management tends to focus on food plots and supplemental feeding. Yet the focus first should be on developing ways to improve the quality and abundance of native foods, then on developing strategies to supplement deficiencies. The whitetail landscape should be comprised of at least 20 percent native forage. “Forage” is a broad term, including browse, weeds (forbs), mushrooms and grasses.
A whitetail is relatively short (4 feet), so there is a “deer zone,” in which everything a deer needs must exist. A whitetail eats about 8 pounds of forage daily, and just being green does not make every plant attractive to deer. Deer have a long, pointed snout, equipped with a long tongue, for reaching into vegetation to select the tender and nutritious plant parts; and unlike cows, deer cannot digest highly fibrous plants!
The typical deer woods contain, on average, about 500-600 pounds (dry weight) per acre of green material. Of this, only about 20 percent is suitable for deer. Since a deer needs at least a ton of forage each year (allowing for other foods), it takes about 18 acres of forest to support one deer. Forest management practices such as thinning and prescribed burning greatly increase food, making manipulating vegetation critical to deer forage management.
In a perfect world, whitetails would reach their full nutritional potential solely from native vegetative browse and mast. However, in many parts of deer country, this is impossible for several reasons. Some areas have mismanaged, aging forests with little to no food in the “deer zone.” Others simply lack beneficial mast producing hardwoods or shrubs. Worse yet, many intensely farmed agricultural areas have declining or non-existent “edge habitat” and very little food left behind from modern farming practices.
As a result, manmade food plots are a necessity for providing year-round food sources for whitetails. Principally, there are two types of food plots: warm season and cool season plots. e former is intended for providing high-protein, highly digestible forage during the spring and summer when bucks are recovering from the rut and does are lactating and nursing fawns.
Typical warm season plantings include annual legumes like cowpeas, soybeans, clovers or non-legumes like chicory and other plants. In contrast, cool season plots are designed to carry deer through stressful winter months when native food sources decline. Cereal grains, like oats, wheat, cereal rye and corn are popular options.
Travel corridors, as the name implies, are habitat features that tend to funnel deer from one type of habitat to another. Deer are drainage animals, and travel corridors often parallel streams along the mid-slope above the stream. There is a high probability you will find deer trails that follow the topographic lines parallel to the drainage.
Thee best travel corridors are those with dense understory vegetation that screens deer movement. Their location allows a deer to escape detection by either traveling up or down hill. In habitat management, we can design the landscape to have constructed travel corridors that connect critical elements of the habitat. For example, we o en plant conifers in strips to connect feeding and bedding areas. In so doing, you can easily make deer travel exactly where you want, yet there’s no sure fire way to get deer to travel when you want.
A sanctuary is a place where deer feel comfortable bedding during daylight hours. There is no standard structure for a sanctuary, as it can be satisfied in many ways. A sanctuary has the function of allowing a deer to bed where it can watch a distance ahead and have the wind at its back, so it can smell danger from behind. In addition, a sanctuary must provide easy escape without being detected.
Sanctuaries may be found in woodlots, on small islands in river bottoms, small patches of plum thickets in prairies or even an abandoned building! Good habitat management designates areas where there is no human disturbance, while having access to food and water via a series of travel corridors. Designating a sanctuary on your property is the key to small land deer management. You should locate a sanctuary near the middle of your property and hunt the perimeter.
Mast is the fruits and nuts of woody vegetation, ranging from majestic oaks to shrubby plum and berry thickets. Mast is a critical source of digestible energy, and it’s the most important nutritional component of a deer’s diet! The most familiar form of mast, of course, are oak acorns. However, other nut producers such as chestnuts and native pecans are highly attractive. Mast producing trees such as oaks must be managed, and the goal should be stands that have older trees with broad crowns; since, the primary factor influencing acorn production in oaks (in addition to age) is crown diameter.
Oak stands that are very dense tend to have small crowns, and the competition this creates reduces acorn yield. Management of oak stands involves reducing the number of trees per acre and striving for a mix of red and white oaks. Red oaks flower one year and mature fruit the next, while white oaks flower and mature fruit the same year. Soft mast producing species mature and begin fruiting much earlier than oaks and are most easily planted to produce in a timely manner.
Deer orchards are a relatively new concept in deer habitat management. A deer orchard is an area that is planted and maintained in a mix of fruit and nut producing trees and shrubs. A deer orchard can be a simple edge planting adjacent to a food plot or a grove located in a forest opening. Spacing is important, since crown and root competition are created by trees being planted too close. A rule-of-thumb is to plant your trees at a 25 x 25 foot spacing.
The more species and varieties you plant, the better! is creates a diversity of fruiting types and maturity dates, the goal of which is to increase the success and time of availability of the fruits and nuts. The best species to plant in a deer orchard are pears, apples, plums, persimmons, chestnuts (American and Chinese), grapes, blackberry and raspberry. Native shrub species, such as American beautyberry in the South and blueberries in the North, are excellent choices. You should have one deer orchard to 80 acres in most areas.
Cover comes in many forms, but in general there are four types: winter thermal cover, summer thermal cover, escape cover and edges. Winter thermal cover is structured so that there is a dense overstory canopy, usually of conifers, with a dense understory that impedes wind movement. The dense canopy reduces snow and rain reaching the forest floor. Summer thermal cover is quite different. It is composed of a lightly stocked canopy that produces dappled shade, with little or no understory so that the wind will pass through.
Both types are critical because they effect energy conservation. Escape cover can be satisfied in many ways, but the communality is a habitat that has high horizontal screening value; so that a deer can run no more than 50 yards, before stopping and looking back at the disturbance. This cover often looks dense from the ground, yet in the air it is lightly stocked with shrubs. Edge is very important as a transition from one habitat to another. Deer do not like areas where two habitats meet as a sharp edge! Softening edges with grasses and shrubs is a sound habitat management practice.