Plant Trees For Wildlife

By Don Mulligan
PLANTING trees is one of the best ways outdoorsmen and women can to give back to the resource they love and use.

When planted with wildlife in mind, the right trees aid in the propagation and survival of both game and nongame species.  That’s important where only remnants of forests remain.

In most of the country, it’s important to try and plant trees only in months whose names have an R in them. Trees can be planted in May and June, but they require more maintenance and are not as likely to survive.

When deciding which type of tree to plant solely to benefit wildlife, it helps to remember that wildlife trees fall into two broad categories: Food and cover. The ideal tree provides both.

Few trees provide both food and cover for wildlife, but a couple come close. Eighteen-inch DBH (diameter at breast height) or bigger blackgums are a good example of a dual role tree. 

Older blackgums often produce lots of berries. They also often  have large holes on their main stems. These large holes serve as dens for everything from birds to opossums.

Another dual role tree is the Washington hawthorne. Mature hawthornes are loaded with berries that are sought by birds, squirrels and other woodland creatures.  They also make great nesting trees since they are covered with long, pointy thorns.

But not all trees provide both food and optimal cover. Some are good for one or the other, but not both. Any large tree with a hole in it is considered a den tree. They are valuable for obvious reasons to all sorts of small creatures.

One of the arguments for not aggressively logging any woods is that the best den trees are typically the oldest trees. Old trees are naturally bigger and therefore valuable to timber companies. Anyone interested in logging their woods with wildlife still in mind, should identify the big den trees and leave them standing.

Not all logging is bad for wildlife, however. Thinning some old trees creates new growth at a level that small animals can access.  Leftover treetops also create spectacular cover for ground nesting birds and other woodland wildlife.

Large fallen tree trunks should also be left on the forest floor.  As they decay, they often hollow and create prime escape and hiding spots.

Some pines produce edible nuts, but their main function on behalf of wildlife is as cover. Planted in blocks, evergreens are unsurpassed as winter windbreaks. 

Pines, however, need to be protected from deer until they are 15-ft-tall. Their pungent and sticky sap is attractive to rutting bucks that use them to mark their territory. Aggressively rubbed pines rarely survive.

There are a variety food trees that do well in many states. Like the blackgum and the Washington hawthorne, all produce a mast crop.  Mast is the fruit of a tree or a shrub and is called either “hard” (acorns, hickory nuts, walnuts, etc.) or “soft” (fleshy fruits of dogwood, black gum, black cherry, etc.).

Persimmon trees produce a large fruit that is sought by all wildlife, especially deer and turkeys. They can be difficult to transplant, however.

A better mast tree choice is one of several varieties of apple trees. Late-bearing varieties like the Granny Smith are good for hunters who would like fruit to still be dropping when deer season rolls around.

And though they are easy to buy and transplant, apple trees require ongoing maintenance. The best producing trees are pruned annually, sprayed several times a year and are individually protected from deer and rabbits.

A better choice for year-round mast production is a combination of oak trees. Because of their different fruiting habits, landowners should plant both red and white oaks.

Acorns on trees in the red oak group mature in two years, while trees in the white oak group produce mature acorns in one season. Having both groups in one woodlot lessens the chance of a complete mast crop failure. Failures occur most often when there is a late killing frost in the spring.

Common species in the white oak group include white oak, post oak and chestnut oak. Common red oaks include northern red oak, southern red oak and black oak.

Anyone who loves the outdoors has an obligation to put something back into the wilderness they use. Planting trees is a fun and easy way to ensure the countryside remains scenic and wildlife has a place to live and eat.