It doesn’t take huge amounts of land, deep pockets or an advanced degree to create a place for wildlife to call home. Some or all of the above are helpful, to be sure, but there’s nothing to say that folks who have a few acres and a few hundred bucks, as well as a willingness to get their hands dirty and their elbows sweaty, can’t create a wildlife Mecca of their own.
Just ask Jared Wiklund, public relations manager for Pheasants Forever, who owns and lives on 10 acres of grassland and wetland near Forest Lake, Minn., on the outskirts of the Twin Cities. His story is proof that anyone who finds the right piece of land – say, 10 to 40 acres in size – has a vision for what it can become, and is willing to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty can create a great piece of wildlife ground. “It’s a nice little piece of heaven, and it’s close to town,” said Wiklund, who commutes about 20 minutes each way to PF’s headquarters in St. Paul. “We wanted an acreage, and I wanted to be fairly close to work. We found this property, which borders a state wildlife management area, and where shooting is allowed, which is good because I like to hunt. It kind of has the best of all worlds.”
First, consider the location. Wiklund’s property is private, of course, but the fact it borders a state wildlife management area is nothing but helpful and increases its attractiveness and utility to wildlife. Not only can he hunt on the public land if he chooses, but the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources manages that land specifically for wildlife habitat. “You can suck in a lot more wildlife, too, since you’re not just out there on an island,” Wiklund said. Additionally, he’s developed good relationships with neighboring landowners – and made decisions based on some of the features of their properties. One of the neighbors to the north has a 500-acre dairy farm. That property has a big cattail slough on it, and Wiklund has planted food plots near that cover so birds can access both food and cover during the winter with relative ease.
There’s also a 100-acre pasture, and Wiklund has talked to those landowners about haying later in the year, and also about starting to hay in the middle of the pasture and then working their way out. According to a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) paper on wildlife friendly haying management, haying during the nesting season “can cause tremendous mortality losses to both ground-nesting birds and wildlife.” Beginning in the center of the field and working outward is one way to flush wildlife from hay fields during the mowing operation. “Working with the neighbors to try to minimize those mortalities hasn’t really been a challenge,” Wiklund said. “It’s something that’s been fun and that they’re receptive to it.”
Wiklund’s property is hilly and dominated by wetlands. Among his main priorities is to keep warm-season grasses in and reed canary grass out. The latter is a terrestrial invasive species, according to the Minnesota DNR, and “is a major threat to natural wetlands.” If left unchecked, it grows in large, single-species stands and outcompetes native vegetation. Reed canary grass was brought to the United States in the 1800s to provide forage and erosion control. “I manage specifically for nesting cover for the birds,” said Wiklund, who loves hunting a variety of birds, including pheasants, ruffed grouse and wild turkeys. “This spring is the most birds I’ve seen on my property. One day recently it was cold and rainy and I pulled into my driveway and there were seven hens and two roosters standing there.”
While that would be impressive just about anywhere, it’s even more so given the fact Wiklund’s land is on the northeastern edge of the Twin Cities, which isn’t exactly in the heart of Minnesota’s pheasant range. “I rent equipment to get my work done, and it has paid huge dividends as far as wildlife goes. I get lots of pheasants, deer and turkeys. And there are even wood duck pairs on some of the wetlands.”
By virtue of working for Pheasants Forever, Wiklund spends a lot of time thinking about wildlife habitat. But other than purchasing some grass mixes and picking his co-workers’ brains, he’s largely been on his own when it comes to improving his property. “I call myself an armchair biologist,” he said. “I’ve learned to do this stuff, and I am getting better at it each year. It’s all guess-and-check. I read a lot of books as well as online articles about what deer prefer, what turkeys prefer and what pheasants prefer. I’m also really big into pollinators. My land is holding more game and I’m harvesting more species each year—but that’s not the ultimate goal. The real prize is making sure food and cover is available to wildlife when its needed most in the winter and spring months.”
With that, let’s look at some of the ways Wiklund has transformed property into an oasis for a variety of wildlife species. Following are descriptions of some of the work he’s done:
Brush piles can serve as supplemental dense cover for a wide variety of wildlife species. In addition to serving as escape cover, brush piles also provide protection from avian and mammalian predators, as well as from precipitation and wind, according to the NRCS. Wiklund has quite a few brush piles that he’s incorporated into his food plots. He cut down some large trees on his property but didn’t have the ability to use a tractor to remove the stumps, so he cut off the bigger limbs and sprouts and stacked them. “The birds use that as cover year-round,” he said. “I’ll see the chicks standing on top of it, and the birds use it to cool down when the weather gets warm.”
In areas where there are both stands of trees and open prairies—such as on Wiklund’s property—it’s important there’s something of a transition between the two habitat types. Landowners can create those transition areas by edge feathering. In addition to providing safety, these areas also are important feeding and brood-rearing spots. Wiklund’s property had a lot of ash trees, some of them also have emerald ash borer, and rather than wait for them to die, he’s gone in with a chainsaw and hinge-cut them. “It’s used as escape cover by the birds,” he said. “And the grass also grows up really nicely around there. I’ve even seen deer bedding in there.”
Fire is a common management technique that replicates some of the disturbance at one time underwent naturally. Wiklund has completed a number of prescribed burns on his property, though he does it such that there’s always nesting cover available to birds. One of his main priorities in burning is to knock back the reed canary grass.
Buckthorn is another invasive plant that chokes out native vegetation and develops a thick canopy that reduces the amount of sunlight that reaches the ground. As a result, areas with thick buckthorn growth may have little vegetation on the ground—not a good combination for wildlife. “Removing buckthorn just takes good old-fashioned elbow grease,” Wiklund said. “I just pull the buckthorn right out of the ground.”
Tree and shrub planting
Wiklund plans this year to plant evergreen trees on the north side of his property to serve as what will amount to a snow fence. He also has apple trees that deer, in particular, enjoy, and Wiklund plans to incorporate plum trees into his tree mix.
Wiklund has spent a lot of time thinking about food plots and how they best can serve the wildlife he hopes to attract. This is one area where he hires someone to help. He hires a person with big tractor and 60-inch tiller to work up the ground, which helps to ensure successful plant growth by promoting good soil-to-seed contact. Though he plans to continue experimenting with what he plants, Wiklund particularly likes corn and sorghum. But just as important, at least as far as he’s concerned, is maintaining a “dirty food plot” that has weeds and vegetation growing in among the food, which attracts the insects that are so important for broods. He likes a food plot mix that includes buckwheat, which has high sugar content and attracts pollinators. “This last year, you could walk up there and hardly hear yourself think because there were so many bees on the plants,” Wiklund said.
By learning as much as he can about creating wildlife habitat, and having a willingness to experiment and give things a try, Wiklund has been able to create a piece of ground that many hunters could only dream about. Just as important as having an open mind, though, is having a willingness to work hard.
“The first year or year and a half was just getting a palette out there that I could work with,” he said. “The second year—last year—was really when I dove in and started replacing the things I didn’t want see. I’ve been able to create a wildlife haven that I’m proud of, and I look forward to harvesting a few animals off it this year.”