Even whitetail deer need a place to call home
This year, I am bowhunting near a cornfield for the first time. I always see deer being hunted next to agricultural fields on television or in pictures, so I thought I’d give it a try.
While scouting, I found numerous trails where the deer entered the cornfield. Since I wasn’t sure which trail to hunt, I decided to set up on a trail that parallels the field about 60 yards in; we will see if I made a good choice. My hope is that the deer will travel the trail I am hunting as they move from their bedding area to feed. While deciding what trail has the most traffic, I got to thinking. What could I do that would attract the deer to take the path I want them to? Here’s what I considered.
Food plots can bring the deer closer to the stand and out of thick cover, but it is difficult to predict when they will hit the plot. For most hunters, if perfect weather hits in the middle of the week, they can’t drop everything to head to the deer stand. Hunting ag fields can be beneficial except when the crops change. One year it could be corn, next beans, and the next? Who knows what! What if the fields were so wet the combines couldn’t harvest the corn and the deer wouldn’t leave the field? Have you ever planted a food plot, but didn’t get any rain?
With a short window to hunt and dealing with so many variables like weather, food, cover, and time, it would be nice if there was something a little more stable and reliable that both hunters and deer could count on regardless of the weather or time of year. Providing deer with something that benefits their routine is key.
The predictable solution: native landscapes. A native landscape provides food for all four seasons, cover for deer to travel, and a place to bed, hide their young, eat, and breed. All of this will have a positive impact on the deer and the ecosystem of which they are a part.
What is a native landscape?
When I refer to a “native landscape,” I am speaking of a plant community that existed before European settlement. Native landscapes consisted of numerous woody and herbaceous species, creating an extremely diverse community of plants that supported a diverse community of animals.
Native ecosystems counted on fire, large storms, and massive herds of grazing animals to sustain growth, healthy competition, and encourage reproduction. Fire ripped through prairies and killed off shrubs and small trees. This opened the ground up to allow flowers and grasses to germinate from the warmth of the sun. Storms blew trees over, opening up the forest and preventing the canopy from becoming too dense, which allowed sunlight to penetrate to the understory and stimulate growth. Wildlife grazed, eating seeds and spreading them, trimming trees and shrubs as they passed through. There were grasses, forbs (flowers), sedges, rushes, shrubs, trees, and so much more.
Now there are very few native plant communities left. Aggressive native and non-native plant species have taken over, creating large sections of habitat with very low plant diversity. Restoring your habitat to a native landscape would increase the plant diversity and wildlife on your property.
Benefits of a native landscape for whitetail deer
First, let’s dig into some prairie grasses and the benefits they provide for whitetail deer.
Believe it or not, deer do not get that much of their nutrition from grass. It has a much bigger role in providing cover for the deer. They use it as bedding, cover to hide their young, and as travel corridors to stay hidden from predators. Typically, native prairie grasses grow relatively tall. A short grass prairie can easily be 2-3 feet tall, whereas a tall grass prairie is in the range of 4-6 feet tall. Both short grass and tall grass species can fluctuate in height in the right conditions. The more diverse your landscape is, the more potential to host a larger number of deer alongside other wildlife. During the era of agricultural expansion, particularly throughout the late 1800s, prairies were mostly tilled under and are currently rare. This could be the difference that attracts the deer to your property.
Growing amongst the grasses are your forbs. Forbs rely on each other, and consequently the deer will become reliant on them. Forbs are the broadleaf flowering plants like purple prairie clover, alfalfa, bergamot, or blue vervain. Forbs are a huge source of food. The numerous species of forbs sprout throughout the year, from early in the spring to late in the fall, giving deer fresh greens to graze throughout the growing season. They are everywhere, and the deer love them.
With the right mix a deer can graze on new forbs almost all year and have the cover from the grass. Forbs grow in different weather conditions and in various landscapes, so you can find the right ones for you no matter your location. For a doe raising young, a prairie is a great place for her to eat and keep her young hidden from predators. It is the perfect balance of food and cover; a deer’s paradise.
Shrubs are another great source of food and cover and they are always there for the deer. In the spring, the new leaves are right at eye level and perfect to eat. Maybe the deer will come across a few eggs resting in a nest amongst the shrubs. Then the summer provides flowers and more leaves. In the fall, there will likely be a fruit of some kind: berries (e.g. sumac), acorns (e.g. oak), or nuts (e.g. beech). During winter, when the times are tough, there will be some young branches, hopefully, with buds on them. If the shrubs had a bad year producing food, the deer can still count on them for a great place to hide.
Deciduous trees are yet another great source of food and cover. Deer love young trees so much that they can kill them by over-browsing. However, if the tree can withstand the browsing and grow a little higher, it can produce large amounts of food. Typically in the fall, whatever fruit the tree has produced will drop, and the deer will graze through the woods, eating what the trees give. Coniferous trees also provide food. Their low hanging boughs and young trees also give deer something to munch, especially in the winter when everything else has lost its leaves and all the food is buried under the snow.
The shade trees provide helps the deer cool off and hide in the summer, and their trunks and branches will help keep them warm in the winter. Trees are very important to a deer’s success. They also give us humans a place to hang our deer stands, so hunters need trees, too.
How will this landscape benefit your hunting?
Use native landscapes as a tool to attract deer, similar to a food plot, except it is low maintenance and permanent. You can count on it and so can the deer. It will survive a drought, seasonal flooding, and will come back after fire and wind. Within these examples of native landscaping, I hope you will have a better understanding of the habitat you want to create and the wildlife you want to support.
The first example is hunting on the edge of agriculture. Out in front is a tilled field; behind is a large woods. Whitetail deer are a species of edge habitats, moving back and forth throughout the day between different types of habitat. The edge is thick with brush and trees. You have an idea where the deer are entering the field that could provide you with a shot. All together there is a wide open field and a big forest. Those are two habitat types, but a deer needs more than that. They need diversity. Where do you start?
Well, planting in an agriculture field is probably not an option, so let’s thin out that wood line and set it back. Don’t take everything; you can always come back and cut more. Clear some brush, remove some trees, and open up the canopy. This is going to allow grasses, forbs, young trees, and shrubs to start growing and providing all sorts of food. This will take maintenance down the road. It will require you to come in and remove the young would do. And this is how it is going to help: this clearing is the hallway from the bed to the field. It still provides cover for the deer to be comfortable. It gives them the confidence to move and provides some food on the way. Now, hunt the “hallway.” Hopefully, you will see the deer more often and in the daylight and be presented with a clear shot. No more jumping them out of their bed and no more spooking them out of the field on the way to your deer stand.
Second example: same scene, but instead of changing the tree line, plant the corner where the plow can’t reach or an area that is too wet to be tilled. Or plant the corner and set back the tree line to create a larger area with more diverse landscape. It will attract more deer and help predict when and where they will move because it will be a source of food all year, rather than just in the fall.
Another example: hunting deep woods. Similar tactic, open it up. Find a lowland area like a swamp and make the edge wider. This provides a chance to hunt the swamp edge without having to go into their bedding area or into water. Again, new growth will appear, giving the deer food and cover and pulling them out of the thick swamp.
My biggest suggestion: try and reenact fire or if possible use fire and enjoy the fantastic habitat it can create. Make the area you’re hunting comfortable for the deer, and don’t put them in a vulnerable place, out in the open for every predator to see. Make a better, safer habitat.
What if all you have is an open field? If it is agriculture, you could try and plant a buffer around the edge with grasses and forbs or some windrows with a few more woody species. If it is not agriculture, but grasses, shrubs, and a few trees here and there, you can manage the land to get more forbs by burning it. Please do this with the help of knowledgeable professionals; this is not a time to experiment with fire on your own! Another way to foster more grasses and forbs would be to kill off some sections, disturb the soil, and plant some more forbs. Most of the grass fields I see that are not managed have only a few species that have out competed the others due to the lack of grazing or fire. Once again, reenact natural processes, by using a prescribed fire or non-selective grazing.
One thing that will dramatically improve a habitat, compared to almost all others, is a native landscape simply because it is so rare in the United States. I was told there is less than one percent of tall grass prairie left; true or not, it is an extremely rare habitat that deer love.
Benefitting the entire ecosystem
One of the benefits of prairie grasses is holding the soil together, as their roots grow so deep that they are resilient against fire and flooding. Increasing the diversity of woody and herbaceous species will attract an enormous amount of pollinators. If you plant it, they will come. Different plant species attract different insect species or pollinators. The more pollinators you have, the easier and more successful the plants will be, creating a robust and sufficient habitat that requires little maintenance. With more plants and insects living on the land, you will find more birds living there to eat the insects, as well as rodents like squirrels, mice, voles, moles, and so many more. Give the mice a place to live besides your garage! All of these things are going to help the plants grow and spread, and that robust plant community is going to provide food for the deer. They will also eat the grasses, seeds, insects, bird eggs, and so much more. This habitat can attract turkeys, pheasants, squirrels, rabbits, deer, and bear. Not only will it attract them, but they will want to stay, and the land will be able to provide for them and keep them around. The land will no longer have animals passing through; they will be living there.
A native landscape will help you as a deer hunter. The landscape will provide for the deer and all wildlife. Increasing the diversity of plants will provide all the nutrients deer need, especially if attracting them and keeping them on your land all year long is the goal. This type of landscape likes to be grazed and will handle larger numbers of animals, giving you more hunting opportunities. It will handle droughts, fires, floods, and grazing. Its roots grow deep, providing stability for the entire ecosystem.
Hunting everyday is my dream, but not my reality. I would love to sit in my stand and watch the deer filter into the field every night, watching which trail they take, waiting for them to choose mine. That is not an option for me, so by planting and maintaining a native landscape, I can maximize my limited time in the stand and set myself up for a higher rate of success. I am going to limit my variables and increase my opportunities to harvest deer.
Jackson McDowell is a hunter, angler, gatherer, and conservationist. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in Wildlife Biology. Since graduating in 2016, his work has primarily been in restoring, planting, and managing land in Minnesota to its natural habitats. His heart and soul are rooted in nature.