Deer habitat gets all the press. But there are plenty of simple projects you can undertake to improve habitat for small game. As a bonus, working on habitat for rabbits and squirrels will benefit whitetails and turkeys as well.
One of the nice things about small game habitat projects is 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 any land, chances are a neighbor, friend, or relative does. Most landowners who lease you deer hunting rights would also be glad to see some of these improvements made on their property. Be sure to discuss your goals, plans, and the expected benefits with them, though, before getting started.
Here are a few projects I’ve used on my land in western Virginia to increase both rabbit and squirrel populations and improve the habitat for grouse, quail, and woodcock at the same time.
1) Feather a Field Border
When small farms rich with cover were the norm, this would have been a useless project. There were brushy areas in every field corner and along forest borders. But with modern large-scale agricultural spreads and mechanized clean-farming methods, few of these areas remain. Fix that by building your own field edges and corners, making a graded transition from mature woods to open fields. Rabbits don’t like to expose themselves in open areas and need these areas to be able to safely use the adjoining fields without fearing a hawk or coyote attack.
Borders should be 25 to 50 feet wide, transitioning from taller shrubs near the woods to lower bushes, forbs, and beneficial grasses near the open field. If you want to take the easy approach, you can simply stop cultivating the edge of the field. Over a few years, weeds, saplings, shrubs, and beneficial grasses will grow up.
Broomsedge, which often takes over in uncultivated fields, is especially beneficial to cottontails according to Virginia Small Game Project Leader Marc Puckett. “It’s usually found near where blackberries are growing, offering rabbits food and cover,” he says. “Rabbits love it. When I was younger we used to jump-shoot them around that combination. They also love sumac. They eat the bark near the ground in winter.”
Besides not cultivating the field edge, you can speed the process by planting other valuable shrubs along the border of your fields. Good species include crabapple, raspberry, serviceberry, red osier or silky dogwood, honeysuckle, indigo bush, sumac, chinkapin, and lespedeza.
Another way to improve these border areas is to hinge-cut some trees along the edge of the woods, leaving only a few mast-producing or economically valuable trees standing. Leave the trees you cut partially attached, just in from the bark, so they continue to grow and offer both food and cover for small game and birds. Honeysuckle and grapevines will also grow up and wrap around the cut treetops making a paradise for small game.
2) Plant Fruit Trees for Rabbits and Squirrels
Both squirrels and rabbits like to munch on fruits. Pick a low gentle slope or flat open area and plan on putting in at least six trees to ensure cross-pollination. Cattle pastures, fallow fields, and natural clearings are good spots to plant. Make sure the site gets at least six hours of sunlight daily. Apple, pear, crabapple, and plum are good choices. Persimmon is best of all.
To protect these trees while they’re young, erect wire barriers or tree shields around them. Make sure they get water during their first few months. After they are firmly established, add fertilizer annually.
3) Plant Sawtooth Oaks For Small Game
If you have lots of open land with meadows and fields, devote some of it to oaks. But not just any oaks. Most oaks take 10 to 20 years to produce mast. Sawtooth oaks start bearing fruit in just 3 to 6 years. Plant 20 to 80 seedlings 25 to 30 feet apart where other oak trees aren’t present, and they’ll draw squirrels (and turkeys) like a magnet. Uncultivated fields are good places for a sawtooth oak grove. After six months add a 10-10-10 or similar fertilizer around the tree. Repeat annually at the outer edge of the tree crown as they grow. Fertilizer spikes are convenient for this targeted approach.
4) Till or Disk Strips in Fields
Open fields can be valuable for small game, but not if they are growing with noxious weeds or grasses such as fescue, which don’t offer any food or cover. Chances are there are some seeds from beneficial native forbs and flowers hidden in the soil that have been outcompeted by less-desirable plants. Release them and add to plant diversity by tilling or disking strips in fallow fields. This also has the benefit of setting back the vegetation age structure, preventing the open land from eventually growing into a forest, and promoting native plant diversity—all pluses for small game species.
Pastures or fallow fields are great places to do this. Disk a strip 10 to 20 feet wide, then skip over 40 to 60 feet and disk another strip, alternating through the field. Rotate the strips you disk on a three-year schedule to allow plant succession to occur and different native foods to emerge. Don’t till too deep—a few inches will break up the sod and release beneficial seeds like blackberry, raspberry, and broomsedge.
5) Plant Mini Food Plots
Food plots aren’t just for deer. If you’ve never jumped a rabbit from a clover patch, you haven’t done much cottontail hunting. Put these plots near a field edge transition corridor you created along a forest border or in a natural clearing in the woods.
Kill existing vegetation thoroughly with a glyphosate herbicide, and then disk the soil several times after the existing vegetation dies. Make sure you have a firm, smooth seedbed.
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 crop, first plant wheat or oats as a nurse crop at a depth of ½ to 1 inch, then cultipack it. Just before a rain, spread the clover seed on top of the wheat planting.
Rabbits will eat the tender new shoots of wheat all winter. In the spring after it grows 12 to 18 inches tall, mow it down and the clover will take over. As an option, leave some strips of wheat growing. The clover will still thrive, but the wheat seeds will provide more food and also attract gamebirds such as pheasants, quail, doves, and turkeys.
Plant small grains and clover on logging roads. Species such as sorghum, buckwheat, and millet are all valuable for small game and birds. Mix them with some red and crimson clover and spread on timber roads or log landings. To ensure the seed gets sufficient sunlight, “daylight” the trails by cutting back some trees along the borders.
6) Create a Water Source for Small Game
Small game animals require water daily. Attract them to your land with a source they can rely on 12 months of the year. Small ponds can be easily dug with a backhoe on a small tractor. Find low basins that drain sidehills and dig down through the topsoil to reach a clay bottom that will hold water. State and county governments can offer advice, soil information, and any permits needed. The local Soil Conservation Service office is a good starting point.
If you want something cheaper and quicker, consider blocking a small wet-weather stream so it holds water year-round. Use rocks, logs and build small dams by hand or with a tractor. They don’t have to be pretty, just capable of holding water year-round.
Another choice is to dig out a small area and place a kid’s plastic pool or livestock tank in it. Be sure to have a branch in the water leading to dry land in case a rodent or rabbit falls in so it can escape. You may have to fill the tank occasionally. If it runs dry, rabbits and squirrels will look elsewhere.
7) Make a Small Clear-Cut
Squirrels like acorns, walnuts, beech, and other mast. But they need diversity in their habitat, and rabbits absolutely need more cover than an open mature forest offers. Meet their needs with small clear-cuts, which provide both cover and food.
Leave a few high-quality mast trees in the cut, as well as dogwoods, but remove almost everything else. You’ll probably need to hire a pulpwood or firewood cutter for this project. If you try it yourself, be as safe as you can. Logging is dangerous.
Plan on irregular shapes and parcels of ¼ to 2 acres. Sapling growth and shrubs such as raspberry, greenbrier, blackberry, honeysuckle, and other valuable species will soon grow up as increased sunlight encourages new low growth. Have the logger push some of the tops into small piles for rabbit shelters.
8) Create Brush Piles for Rabbit Cover
Even if you don’t clear-cut any woods, you still need brush piles. If lots of your habitat is open, creating strategically located jumbles of brush will be extremely beneficial for rabbits. Cut low-value trees such as red maples, some all the way through, some part way. Stack them at odd angles to provide corridors underneath the jumble where a rabbit can hide, but have several escape routes close at hand.
Also add a few scrub pines or cut and drag red cedars from nearby fields to offer the animals some denser conifer cover for the winter in addition to the hinge-cut deciduous trees. Several small brush piles are better than one large one, which can attract coyotes. When the pickings get slim on a rabbit hunt, head for one of these brush piles or another habitat improvement you’ve made. You’ll almost be guaranteed to head home with a bulge in your game pouch.