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Plow it Up And Wait Ė They Will Come

Working With Mother Nature To Attract Songbirds
By Charles Kennedy

Life is full of surprises. When I was a young I never dreamed I would confess to being a birdwatcher.

I grew up in south Alabama in a family of hunters and fishermen. This family tradition was comfortable for Charles Kennedy me, still is, but through the years I have discovered another item for my "reasons I love being out in the woods" list. Birds!

My discovery was gradual, but there were events along the way that resulted in most of my "bird hunting" being done with binoculars instead of a shotgun. One of the most dramatic occurred on a January morning in 1975.

I was in a tree stand, camo from head to toe, waiting for a buck to show. Just as the sunrays broke through the branches a bird landed on my arm. It scared the daylights out of me. I had no idea what kind of bird he was. Looked like a brown woodpecker as it hitched around the tree, but it wasnít a woodpecker. I looked in a bird book when I got home. It was a Brown Creeper. I was hooked!

My list of "birds seen" started to grow. Some were in my backyard; most were on the 800 acres that my hunting club leases. There are aBrown Creeper variety of habitats on this tract including mature forest, clearcuts, pastures, food plots, man-made pond,  and a beaver pond. The land has been managed for farming, timber production, hunting and fishing. Parts of the management plan were left to Mother Nature. Until I got hooked on birdwatching she was the only one doing much for songbirds. My obsession with adding birds to my "life list" resulted in "songbird management" being added to the plan.

I am not a professional land manager, biologist, or anything else much but a "good olí boy" who likes to hunt, fish, and birdwatch. My management plan is the result of reading, asking questions, and years of "seat of the pants" experimentation. It appears to be working. I have recorded 179 species of birds on the property. This is almost half of the list of birds recorded in Alabama.

Here are a few things I have done in the various habitats on the 800 acres.

Mature Forest

Thereís not much opportunity for quick results here short of cutting the trees. It takes a while to grow big poplars, oaks, and gums. The number of good bird trees in the forest can be increased. One of the best is a dogwood. I have had good results pulling up small seedlings and planting them in a hole kicked in the ground.

Where there are clearings and sunny spots I plant wildflower seeds and those from berry producing shrubs and vines. Buckeyes will grow in clearings and sunny areas. I collect the seed in late summer and fall and plant them the following spring. Buckeyes have bright red blooms that appear in March. They are great for hummingbirds.

Woodpeckers live in the forest and need dead trees for housing and feeding. If disease and insects are not a problem I leave the deadwood standing.

Fewer species of birds use mature forests than use other types of habitat. The ones who do canít make a living anywhere else. Summer Tanagers, Red-eyed Vireos, and Yellow-billed Cuckoos prefer the mature forest and in winter this is where you may see your first Brown Creeper. A blooming Tulip Poplar is a magnet for migrating warblers in April.

Pastures and Food Plots

These are the areas that offer the best opportunity for management that produces quick changes in the landscape.

There are numerous bird species that prefer to live in edge habitat. They like areas where meadow meets forest because of the cover and abundant food supply. My hunting club owns a tractor, disk harrow, and Bush Hog. I use these to create edge.

In September, when the food plots are finished, I work on the bird plots. Itís easy and doesnít take long. There are countless wildflower and other seeds a few inches under the surface most anywhere. Any gardener or farmer can tell you what happens when these get plowed up. My next move had to be cleared with the landowner. If you donít own the land you are using, better check with the boss before you start plowing the pastures.

I donít really plow the pastures but I do run the disk around the edges and along the fences, ditches, and other places that are not used otherwise. I also make a few passes around the edges of the food plots. Then I move into the wooded areas and disk the edges of the logging roads, log landings and accessible clearings. Thatís all there is to it.

Come March a frenzy of germination takes place and a bird paradise begins. Many of the birds that use edge are seedeaters. Beggar weed, American Beauty Berry, greenbriar, and other weeds and flowers that produce berries and seed will be the first to sprout. If a variety of good bird plants donít come up I collect seed and scatter them on the plowed areas. I carry a plastic bag in my pocket when I am rambling about and have probably collected and planted a million seeds over the years.

Tree seeds sprout along with the weed and flower seeds. It doesnít take long for the sweet gums, pines and oaks to crowd out everything else. When this happens I hitch up the Bush Hog.

The weedy areas and thickets offer good cover and food for White-eyed Vireos, Prairie Warblers, Indigo Buntings, and Blue Grosbeaks in summer and in winter sparrows are abundant.

There is a downside to creating a lot of edge habitat. Predators such as raccoons, foxes, and bobcats can make a good living in edge and will hunt it regularly. Edge also seems to encourage Brown-headed Cowbirds. When you plow the edges you are very likely to see an increase in the birds that like thickets and weeds but it may be at the expense of other species, especially the forest dwellers that haven't learned to deal with cowbirds.

Clearcutting affects the birdlife in an area and there has been some on the 800 acres. The first 4 or 5 years after a cut are a bonanza for certain birds. Yellow-breasted Chats, Indigo Buntings, and Blue Grosbeaks thrive in young pine plantations. After a few years the pines take over and a monoculture results. When I am out for a bird walk I donít bother to visit the older, pure pine plantations.

Another good thing to do in the edge and open areas is install birdhouses. Iíve put up a large number. Bluebirds, chickadees, titmice, wrens, and nuthatches use them.

Farm Pond and Beaver Pond

My management plan for the pond consists mostly of what I donít do. I donít keep the edge too clean. If cattails come up I donít kill them. If River Birch and Wax Myrtle sprout I let them grow. The result? Marsh Wrens, Red-winged Blackbirds, Least Bitterns and a lot of ducks in the winter.

The only thing I have done to manage the beaver pond is persuading the landowner not toA Prothonotary Warbler may change your life. blow up the dam. The beavers are good managers. The result? Prothonotary, Kentucky and Swainsonís Warblers in spring and summer and Phoebes and Swamp Sparrows in winter. If you ever get a good look at a Prothonotary Warbler on a sunny April morning it will change your life.

The management techniques above are a few things I have done to create a variety of good bird habitats. Maintaining diversity is the way the biologists describe it. I think of it as creating areas with a lot of different trees, weeds, flowers, grasses, vines, shrubs... well you get the idea.

Donít wait until a Brown Creeper lands on your arm to discover birds. Get some binoculars, a bird identification book, and do a little plowing around the edges. Before you know it you might confess to being a birdwatcher.

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