Deer habitat gets all the press. But there are many simple projects you can undertake to improve small game habitat. As a bonus, working on rabbit and squirrel habitat will also benefit whitetails and turkeys.
One of the nice things about small game habitat projects is that you don’t need a lot of land to work on to improve the animals’ living conditions and increase their abundance. Even if you don’t own any land, chances are a neighbor, friend, or relative does. Most homeowners who lease deer hunting rights to you would also be delighted to see some of these improvements made to their property. However, be sure to discuss your goals, plans, and expected benefits with them before you begin.
Here are some projects I’ve used on my land in West Virginia to increase rabbit and squirrel populations and improve habitat for grouse, quail, and woodcock at the same time.
1) Blur a field border
Back when small hedge-rich farms were the norm, this would have been a hopeless project. There were brushy areas in every corner of the field and along the edges of the forest. But with modern large-scale agricultural extensions and mechanized clean farming methods, few of these areas remain. Fix that by building your own field edges and corners, gradually transitioning from mature woods to open fields. Rabbits do not like exposure in open areas and need these areas so that they can safely use adjacent fields without fear of a hawk or coyote attack.
Borders should be 25 to 50 feet wide, transitioning from taller shrubs near woods to lower shrubs, herbs, and beneficial grasses near open ground. If you want to take the easy approach, you can simply stop farming the edge of the field. After a few years, beneficial weeds, saplings, shrubs, and grasses will grow.
Broomsedge, which often takes over uncultivated fields, is especially beneficial for white-tailed rabbits, according to Virginia Small Game Project Leader Marc Puckett. “It’s usually near where the berries are growing, providing food and shelter for rabbits,” he says. “Rabbits love it. When I was younger, we used to jump shoot them around that combination. They also love sumac. They eat the bark close to the ground in winter.”
In addition to not cultivating the edge of the field, you can speed up the process by planting other valuable shrubs along the edge of your fields. Good species include crabapple, raspberry, blackberry, red osier or silky dogwood, honeysuckle, indigo bush, sumac, chinkapin, and lespedeza.
Another way to improve these border areas is to hinge cut some trees along the edge of the forest, leaving only a few pole-producing or economically valuable trees standing. Leave the trees you cut partially attached, just below the bark, so they continue to grow and provide food and shelter for small game and birds. Honeysuckle and vines will also grow and wrap around the tops of cut trees, making it a haven for small game.
2) Plant fruit trees for rabbits and squirrels
Both squirrels and rabbits like to chew on fruits. Choose a low, gentle slope or flat open area and plan to put in at least six trees to ensure cross-pollination. Livestock pastures, fallow fields, and natural clearings are good places to plant. Make sure the site gets at least six hours of sunlight a day. Apple, pear, crabapple, and plum are all good choices. Persimmon is the best of all.
To protect these trees while they are young, erect wire fences or tree shields around them. Make sure they get water for the first few months. After they are firmly established, add fertilizer annually.
3) Plant sawtooth oaks for small game
If you have a lot of open land with meadows and fields, dedicate part of it to oaks. But not just any oak. Most oaks take 10 to 20 years to produce masts. Sawtooth oaks begin to bear fruit in just 3 to 6 years. Plant 20 to 80 seedlings 25 to 30 feet away from other oaks, and they’ll attract squirrels (and turkeys) like a magnet. Vacant fields are good places for a sawtooth oak forest. After six months, add a 10-10-10 or similar fertilizer around the tree. Repeat annually on the outer edge of the tree canopy as they grow. Fertilizer spikes are convenient for this specific approach.
4) Tillage or Disc Strips in Fields
Open fields can be valuable for small game, but not if they are growing with weeds or noxious grasses like fescue, which offer no food or cover. Chances are there are some beneficial native herb and flower seeds hiding in the ground that have been outcompeted by less desirable plants. Release them and add to the plant diversity by tilling or strip tilling fallow fields. This also has the benefit of delaying the age structure of vegetation, preventing open land from eventually becoming forest, and promoting native plant diversity, all advantages for small game species.
Pastures or fallow fields are good places to do this. Disc a strip 10 to 20 feet wide, then jump 40 to 60 feet and disc another strip, alternating across the field. Rotate the disc strips on a three-year schedule to allow plant succession to occur and different native foods to emerge. Don’t till too much – a few inches will break up the grass and release beneficial seeds like blackberry, raspberry and broom.
5) Plant Mini Food Plots
Food plots aren’t just for deer. If a rabbit has never jumped out of a field of clover, it hasn’t caught much cottontail. Place these plots near a field edge transition corridor that you created along a forest edge or in a natural clearing in the forest.
Completely remove existing vegetation with a glyphosate herbicide and then mulch the soil several times after existing vegetation dies. Make sure you have a firm, smooth seedbed.
Ladino clovers such as imperial whitetail clover or non-typical clover are good choices because they last three to six years. For the best harvest, first plant wheat or oats as a nurse crop at a depth of ½ to 1 inch, then cultivate it. Just before it rains, spread the clover seed over the wheat field.
Rabbits will eat the tender new shoots of wheat throughout the winter. In the spring, after it grows 12 to 18 inches tall, cut it back and the clover will take over. As an option, leave some wheat crop strips. The clover will still thrive, but the wheat seeds will provide more food and will also attract game birds such as pheasants, quail, pigeons, and turkeys.
Plant small grains and clover along forest paths. Species such as sorghum, buckwheat and millet are valuable for small game and birds. Mix them with some red and crimson clover and spread them on wooden paths or log landings. To make sure the seed gets enough sunlight, “light up” the paths by cutting back a few trees along the edges.
6) Create a water source for small game
Small game animals require water daily. Attract them to your land with a source they can trust 12 months of the year. Small ponds can be easily dug with a backhoe on a small tractor. Find low-lying basins that drain slopes and dig into the topsoil to reach a clay bottom that holds water. State and county governments can offer advice, land information, and necessary permits. Your local Soil Conservation Service office is a good starting point.
If you want something cheaper and faster, consider blocking a small wet-weather stream so it holds water year-round. Use rocks, logs and build small dams by hand or with a tractor. They don’t have to be pretty, just capable of holding water throughout the year.
Another option is to dig out a small area and put in a plastic kiddie pool or cattle tank. Make sure you have a branch in the water that leads to dry land in case a rodent or rabbit falls in so you can escape. You may have to fill the tank from time to time. If it dries out, rabbits and squirrels will look elsewhere.
7) Make a small clearing
Squirrels like acorns, nuts, beech trees and other poles. But they do need diversity in their habitat, and rabbits absolutely need more cover than an open, mature forest offers. Meet their needs with small clearings, which provide them with shelter and food.
Leave some high-quality mast trees in the cut, as well as dogwoods, but remove almost everything else. You will probably need to hire a pulpwood or firewood cutter for this project. If you try it yourself, be as safe as possible. Registration is dangerous.
Plan irregular shapes and plots from ¼ to 2 acres. Suckers and bushes such as raspberry, blackberry, blackberry, honeysuckle and other valuable species will soon grow as increased sunlight encourages new low growth. Have the lumberjack push some of the tops into small piles for rabbit shelters.
Read next: Tired of your Treestand? Go out and bounce some bunnies
8) Create Weed Piles for the Rabbit Cover
Even if you don’t cut down any forest, you still need lots of brush. If much of their habitat is open, creating strategically placed jumbles of brush will be extremely beneficial to rabbits. Cut low-value trees, such as red maples, some completely, others partially. Stack them at odd angles to provide corridors under the jumble where a rabbit can hide, but have several escape routes on hand.
Also add some scrub pines or cut and haul red cedars from nearby fields to offer animals a denser coniferous cover for winter in addition to the hinge cut deciduous trees. Several small piles of brush are better than one large pile, which can attract coyotes. When profits are slim on a rabbit hunt, head to one of these brush piles or another habitat improvement you’ve made. You will almost certainly return home with a lump in your gaming bag.