Early Successional Habitats
Wildlife and the Outdoors
Creating and Maintaining Early Successional Habitats
Stanley D. Stewart, Wildlife Biologist
Plant succession is an ecological process in which one plant community replaces another over time. The early stages of plant succession are composed of species capable of colonizing bare ground. These plant species flourish initially, but soon decline as the bare ground diminishes from plant occupation. Other plants better suited to the changed conditions take over, and the “early succession” plants gradually disappear from the site. Early succession plants are generally herbaceous annuals and perennials that quickly occupy bare ground by germination of wind-borne seed and seed that lie dormant in the soil (sometimes for years).
Many early succession plants are commonly called “weeds” because they invade a site intended for something else like an agricultural crop. But many of these “weeds” and native grasses have great value to wildlife as food and cover. Early succession plant communities produce an abundance of highly nutritious seed and forage sought after by many kinds of wildlife. Various ground-nesting birds and other wildlife require early succession habitats for reproduction, and without these habitats they vanish from the landscape. The primary reason for the decline of bobwhite quail in Alabama and over much of its range is a result of losses of nesting cover and brood-rearing sites supplied by early succession habitats.
Plant communities are inhabited by wildlife species that are most adapted to them. As plant communities change, the wildlife communities also change. Some wildlife species require early successional habitats to supply all or most of their needs. When these habitats fade the animals disappear. Bobwhite quail, numerous resident grassland songbirds, and winter migrant songbirds are in this category. Across the nation, the single category of wildlife experiencing the most decline are those that depend on natural early succession habitats. Some wildlife species benefit from early succession habitats, but also occupy other habitats. If early succession habitats are not available, these animals survive with a lessened capacity or quality of life. Whitetailed deer and wild turkeys fit this category.
Early succession wildlife habitats can be easy to create. A disturbance that develops bare ground exposed to sunlight, such as logging, burning, or disking, sets the natural process in motion for early succession plants to flourish. Various sites in the landscape can be selected to intentionally provide and manage for early succession habitats. The borders of farm fields can be plowed then excluded from planting to allow natural herbaceous ground covers to volunteer and grow in zones 30-60 feet wide around crop fields. Crop fields, or portions of them, can be permitted to lie fallow for one to three years. Permanent wildlife openings can be cleared within forests and allowed to regenerate in natural weeds and grasses. For greatest benefit the openings should be 2 or more acres and make up 10-20 percent of the forest landscape. After forests are thinned, the associated ground disturbance and increased sunlight stimulate early succession plant growth which can be further encouraged with prescribed fire.
Early succession plants and habitats do not persist unless the favorable bare ground environment is provided through periodic disturbances every few years. Field borders and forest openings should be disked about every three years. Forests should be thinned as necessary to maintain open canopies and prescribe burned every two years. Numerous wildlife species will benefit from periodic disturbance practices that create and maintain natural early plant succession habitats in the landscape.