Since the early twentieth century, old farmland has offered important food and cover to wildlife in Wisconsin. When crop fields and pastures are abandoned, they start returning to the condition in which they used to exist before being cleared for agriculture. Over time, they turn into middle-aged and then mature forest, a process that takes decades. But for the first 20 or so years, old reverting fields represent an extremely productive and valuable form of young forest habitat.
loving trees spring up, including red maple, choke and pin cherry, white birch, white pine, and aspen.
Abandoned farmland offers food and cover to woodcock, rabbits and hares, grouse, turkeys, deer, and a host of songbirds. Periodic management activities can keep an old field functioning as a wildlife hotspot. (Photo taken during spring leaf-out.)/A. Roth
Most hunters already know that: they seek out brushy farmland to find deer, cottontail rabbits, snowshoe hares, ruffed grouse, and woodcock. Birders hike through old fields looking for species that don’t live in mature woods, like golden-winged and mourning warblers, brown thrashers, kingbirds, towhees, white-throated sparrows, black-billed cuckoos, and whip-poor-wills. Sharp-eyed naturalists may glimpse bobcats, or come upon wood turtles near streams and rivers.
Old fields provide singing grounds for woodcock in the springtime. At sunset and at dawn, male timberdoodles sound their peent calls from the ground and then fly up into the sky and give voice to their sonorous flight songs to attract females for breeding. When abandoned farmland includes patches of taller trees or an adjacent woods edge, golden-winged warblers may set up breeding territories, with males calling from perches in trees and females nesting on or near the ground, often at the base of a small shrub among thick grasses and other plants.
Soon after old fields are abandoned, grasses, herbs, and wildflowers come in thick. After a few years, the fields are invaded by shrubs like hazel, hawthorn, gray and red-osier dogwood, and raspberry and blackberry. Sun-
Other trees may eventually find their way into an old field. Oaks may come in when animals bury their seeds. (Oaks can survive in partial shade and may ultimately take over some regenerating forest stands – until they’re eventually replaced by other hardwoods, such as basswood and sugar maple, that are even more shade-tolerant.) When the leafy crowns of forest trees link together, sunlight no longer reaches the ground, and shrubs and low plants die out.
Wisconsin already has ample middle-aged and mature woods for the wildlife that need those habitats. In many areas, it’s important to use active management techniques to keep valuable old fields from turning back into forest. Through cooperative planning and cost-sharing programs, the Wisconsin Young Forest Partnership can help landowners keep old fields functioning as prime young forest and shrubland.
Management practices to renew old-field habitat include using chainsaws to remove individual trees before they get too big (the trees make good firewood); using machines to brush hog or mow down weeds and shrubs so they grow back thickly; and using controlled burns to set back vegetation. In essence, management activities mimic natural processes that once delivered ample shrubland and young forest for the wild creatures that need such habitat.
During the spring breeding season, American woodcock males use old fields for singing and courtship flights./E. Dresser
A good place to get acquainted with old-farmland habitat is Navarino Wildlife Area in Shawano and Waupaca Counties.
Learn more about managing old farmland to help wildlife in Best Management Practices for Woodcock and Associated Bird Species. Also see Best Management Practices for Golden-winged Warbler Habitats in the Great Lakes Region, including the supplement Abandoned Farmlands. A good general reference is A Landowner’s Guide to Woodland Wildlife Management.
Kingbirds find insect food in old-field habitat. Many other songbirds flock to these sources of ample food and cover, too./T. Berriman