By Bruce Ingram
One of the biggest issues facing gamebirds such as turkeys, grouse, and quail, as well as ground-nesting songbirds, is the scarcity (and sometimes even void) of brooding and nesting habitat. This problem is why many species of both game and nongame birds have experienced population declines not only in Virginia, but also across the entire East.
Mike Dye, the upland gamebird biologist for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR), agrees about the extent of the issue.
“Throughout much of the Northeast and Southeast, too, land use has changed in recent decades as forests have become older and less diverse,” Dye said. “It used to be that there would be forests of many different ages on the landscape, as well as fields in different stages from agriculture to shrubby growth. Now, basically, we have older forests and open fields and very little in between.”
Dye adds that brushy, scrubby habitat is great for nesting turkeys and grouse as well as many ground-nesting songbirds that prefer to nest in thickets. What’s more, that same habitat is wonderful for turkey poults, grouse chicks, and songbirds (and their young) such as brown thrashers, towhees, chestnut-sided warblers, white-eyed vireos, and yellow-breasted chats that forage for insects and/or native plant seeds. In short, outstanding nesting habitat and brooding habitat are both crucial.
Dye notes many habitat improvement projects can help both our game and songbirds. Hinge cutting and girdling unwanted trees can allow more sunlight to reach the ground, as can numerous small, scattered clear-cuts. Again, diversity in the ages of forests and fields is a plus.
Finally, Dye encourages landowners to implement habitat work during the cold weather period especially and “to park the bush hog if at all possible” come spring and keep it there until nesting season is well over. The biologist says that one study showed that some 10 percent of turkey nests were destroyed by mowing. When turkey numbers have declined already, that 10 percent figure can be especially devasting to an area’s population recovery.