Making Your Forest Inviting for Wildlife

Everybody needs a place to call home. Why not invite wildlife to make your family forest home? All animals have essential needs that include food, water, cover, and space to survive. In addition, many wildlife species have complex needs, such as different diets in their juvenile and adult stages, seasonal changes in habitat, and so on.

The presence of abundant and varied wildlife indicates a healthy forest and can provide you with a multitude of recreational opportunities, from observation to photography to hunting. In addition, you may have the opportunity to listen to the songs of breeding birds and frogs in spring and owls in winter. If your property has a stream running through it or a large water body on it, you’ll also have the pleasure of seeing and hearing waterfowl.

People looking for birds to identify in an Iowa forest. Photo: Rebecca Christoffel.

As a family forest owner, you have the opportunity to provide homes for many wildlife species. But first, you’ll want to find out which animals are already living on and using your property. Armed with that information, you can decide which wildlife species you’d like to encourage on your property and take the actions needed to attract them. Taking an inventory of the habitat types and animals living on your property is rewarding. You can also join citizen science projects, such as Nature’s Notebook, that are focused on monitoring plants and wildlife on a larger scale.

Many factors determine the abundance and kinds of wildlife you have on your property. These factors include the size of your property, the habitat types found on your property and their spatial arrangement, the land management you do or have done on your property, and your neighbors’ land use decisions.

Of course, your geographic location has a lot to do with the kinds of wildlife you’ll find on your property as well. Some wildlife species simply don’t exist in Nevada or Nebraska, for example. One of the best investments you can make to help you conduct an inventory and implement a subsequent wildlife management plan is a set of state field guides for mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. You don’t have to track all the types of wildlife found on your property, but it’s certainly wise to find out which animals are using the property already before deciding to change your land management plan. Who knows? You may be unaware of something very special living on your property because it hasn’t made itself known to you.

Skunk tracks found during a BioBlitz. Photo: Rebecca Christoffel.

In addition to implementing strategies specific to your geographic location, property size, and so on, you can apply the following general guidelines for encouraging wildlife on your property.

  • Keep things messy—neat grounds are no good. Let the fallen woody debris and leaves stay on the forest floor. These materials provide essential cover for many forms of wildlife, including small mammals, salamanders, frogs and toads, and snakes. Also, many items on the forest floor are used by birds in nest-building activities.
  • Reduce/avoid the use of pesticides, particularly sprays, in your woods. Unfortunately, many times wildlife gain access to and feed on insects or plants that have been sprayed. This situation can result in illness or death for the animal. When the use of pesticides is necessary, be sure to follow label directions. Also, limit the area affected by applying pesticides to one area or to individual problem plants (“spot applying”) rather than covering a lot of ground with a broadcast spray.
  • Leave that dead tree standing. Snags are incredibly important for many forms of wildlife. As a dead tree ages, the wildlife that use it also change. Eventually the snag will fall, but it will still provide shelter for many forms of plants and animals.
  • Create structural diversity. The more diverse the habitat types, the greater the different types of wildlife that will make use of your property. Groundcover, old logs, dead trees, and living trees of various sizes will help create a varied structure that attracts a variety of wildlife.

    Students working to construct a scent station to inventory predators in an area. Photo: Rebecca Christoffel.
  • Work with your neighbors. As average forested parcel size decreases, the amount of edge habitat—that is, areas in which two habitat types come together, such as a forest and a lawn—increases. Working with a neighbor or two to manage a larger piece of forested land with a particular cover type increases the number of animals that can be supported in the area.
  • Use native plant species whenever possible. Native species are the most well-adapted plants to your particular area of the country. Also, they are most useful in terms of wildlife food and shelter.
  • Monitor wildlife species of interest. By monitoring a species over time, you can determine how well your habitat management is working. If you notice that the animals are not responding to your management, it’s time to do a little research to determine whether you need to do something else or a larger-scale issue is at play.


Rebecca Christoffel, Cooperative Extension wildlife specialist, Iowa State University

For More Information

Forest Management for Wildlife (Kansas)

Managing Your Woodland for Wildlife (Minnesota)

Integrating Woodland and Wildlife Management Practices on Your Property (Missouri)

A Landowner’s Guide to Inventorying and Monitoring Wildlife in New Hampshire

Woodland Steward Series—Wildlife Management for Landowners (North Carolina)

Woodlands and Wildlife (Pennsylvania)

A Landowner’s Guide to Woodland Wildlife Management (Wisconsin)

To Cut or Not to Cut?  Managing Your Woodland for Wildlife (Wisconsin)