Wildlife habitat is where animals find what they need to survive: food, water, cover from predators and weather, breeding and reading areas and over-wintering areas. The two most important components of wildlife habitat are the plant community structure and plant species composition. Plant community structure is the various vertical layers within an area. Vertical layers are the herbaceous, shrub, sapling (young tree) and tree layers. Each of these vegetative layers differ from each other in temperature, amount of sunlight, species of insects that live there and food sources produced. Because of these differences, there are specific animals that inhabit the different vertical layers. When a vertical vegetative layer is removed from a site, this removes a specific habitat for specific wildlife species. In general, the more diversity of vertical layers within an area, the more feeding, nesting and cover opportunities are available for wildlife. So, providing a diversity of vertical vegetative layers on your property will go a long way in providing wildlife habitat.
Wildlife and native plants have co-evolved over hundreds of years. Animals learned over time how to utilize native plants for feeding, nesting and cover purposes. Keeping indigenous plant species on your property or planting with indigenous plants is one of the best ways in which to protect and provide wildlife habitat.
Here is a brief list of ways in which you can protect and provide wildlife habitat on your property:
Protect or restore vertical vegetative layers on your property. For example, if you have trees but no shrubs, plant native shrubs where possible under the trees. There are also a number of attractive native plants you can use for the herbaceous layer, such as bearberry, wintergreen, lowbush blueberry and hairgrass. The Mashpee Conservation Department has a list of native plants available. (Link to native plants page.)
Plant native species that provide food and cover for wildlife. Mast (nut producing) and berry producing native plants can provide significant food sources for wildlife and even on small lots. Examples of good food source species: red cedars, white and pitch pines, red and scarlet oaks, highbush blueberry, red chokeberry, pin cherry and arrowwood.
Prune limbs and trees conservatively. Landscaping practices such as wholesale removal of mid-story limbs on trees, also known as up-lifting, can remove all the wildlife habitat value associated with the trees. Many species feed, find cover and nest in the mid-canopy of trees. A few species nest or feed in the canopy of trees when the mid-canopy is intact but would be more reluctant to nest or feed there if the cover provided by the mid-story limbs was removed. Prune cautiously and check in with the Conservation Office (link to front page) if you are in the jurisdiction of the Wetlands Protection Act and Mashpee Wetlands Bylaw.
Use herbicides and pesticides thoughtfully or go organic. Chemicals are toxic not only to humans, but to wildlife, too. Think of the harmful and fatal impacts spraying pesticides on trees in the spring can have on young nesting birds and mammals, and of the impacts it may have on insectivore food supplies. Little is known about the impacts that fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides have on the microbes and other invertebrates that live in our lawns. These species are all part of the food chain and large scale removal of them can mean a loss of food supply for species like robins, who eat worms, and catbirds, who are ground gleaners.
Domestic pets predate local small mammals and ground nesting bird species. Domestic pets such as cats and dogs can reduce local populations of mammals such as white-footed mice, chipmunks and young squirrels, which are important food sources for native wildlife such as hawks, foxes and coyotes. Predation by cats of ground nesting birds such as bobwhites and ruffled grouse is of national concern. Keep your pets restrained, or at the very least put bells on your pet cat to give wildlife somewhat of a warning of its presence.
Leave some dead wood on your property. Dead standing wood, snags, dead down wood and logs are important wildlife habitat features. They provide breeding habitat for cavity nesters such as woodpeckers, black-capped chickadees and owls. They are also important food sources for insectivore birds and provide important perching sites for raptors. Logs provide over-wintering habitat for salamanders, cover for rodents and nutrients to the soil. Leave some dead wood on your property and you will be rewarded with excellent wildlife viewing in return.
These are just a few ways in which you can retain local biodiversity in your community. Wildlife is a major component of every ecosystem’s well-being; each species plays an important role. Protecting a healthy ecosystem is our responsibility as stewards of the land. In addition, wildlife enhances our lives on a daily basis.
Prepared by C. Diane Boretos, Assistant Conservation Agent
June 8, 1999