Mast Producing Crops for Wildlife

Mast Producing Crops for Wildlife

North Florida  buck feeding on acorns at the edge of a food plot.  Photo Credit – Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS

It’s that time of year when landowners, hunters, and other wildlife enthusiasts begin to plan and prepare fall and winter food plots to attract wildlife like the nice buck in the photo.

Annual food plots are expensive and labor intensive to plant every year and with that thought in mind, an option you may want to consider is planting mast producing crops around your property to improve your wildlife habitat.  Mast producing species are of two types of species, “hard mast” (oaks, chestnut, hickory, chinkapin, American Beech, etc.), and “soft mast” (crabapple, persimmon, grape, apple, blackberry, pears, plums, pawpaws, etc.).  There are many mast producing trees and shrubs that can be utilized and will provide food and cover for a variety of wildlife species.  This article will focus on two, sawtooth oak (or other oaks) and southern crabapple.

Sawtooth Oak

Oaks are of tremendous importance to wildlife and there are dozens of species in the United States.  In many areas acorns comprise 25 to 50% of a wild turkeys diet in the fall (see photos 1, 2, and 3) and probably 50% of the whitetail deer diet as well during fall and winter.  White oak acorns average around 6% crude protein versus 4.5% to 5% in red oak acorns.  These acorns are also around 50% carbohydrates and 4% fat for white oak and 6% fat for red oak.

The Sawtooth Oak is in the Red Oak family and typically produces acorns annually once they are mature.  The acorns are comparable to white oak acorns in terms of deer preference as compared to many other red oak species.  Most red oak acorns are high in tannins reducing palatability but this does not seem to hold true for sawtooth oak.  They are a very quick maturing species and will normally begin bearing around 8 years of age.  The acorn production at maturity is prolific as you can see in the photo and can reach over 1,000 pounds per tree in a good year when fully mature.  They can reach a mature height of 50 to 70 feet.  There are two varieties of sawtooth oak, the original sawtooth and the Gobbler sawtooth oak, which has a smaller acorn that is better suited for wild turkeys. The average lifespan of the sawtooth oak is about 50 years

Photo 1 – Seventeen year old planting of sawtooth oaks in Gadsden County Florida. Photo Credit – Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS

 

Photo 2 – Gadsden County gobblers feeding on Gobbler sawtooth oak acorns
Photo Credit – Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS

Photo 3 – Gobbler sawtooth oak acorns in Gadsden County. Notice the smaller size compared to the regular sawtooth oak acorn which is the size of a white oak acorn.
Photo credit – Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS

Southern Crabapple

Southern Crabapple is one of 25 species of the genus Malus that includes apples.  They generally are well adapted to well drained but moist soils and medium to heavy soil types.  They will grow best in a pH range of 5.5 – 6.5 and prefer full sun but will grow in partial shade as can be seen in photo 4.  They are very easy to establish and produce beautiful blooms in March and April in our area as seen in photo 5. There are many other varieties of crabapples such as Dolgo that are available on the market in addition to southern and will probably work very well in north Florida.  The fruit on southern crabapple is typically yellow green to green and average 1 to 1.5 inches in diameter.  They are relished by deer and normally fall from the tree in early October.

Photo 4 – Southern crabapple tree planted on edge of pine plantation stand. Photo taken in late March during bloom.
Photo credit – Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS

Photo 5 – Showy light pink to white bloom of southern crabapple in early April during bloom.
Photo credit – Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS

A good resource publication on general principles related o this topic is Establishing and Maintaining Wildlife Food Sources.

If you are interested in planting traditional fall food plots check out this excellent article by UF/IFAS Washingon Couny Extension Agent Mark Mauldin: Now’s the Time to Start Preparing for Cool-Season Food Plots .

For more information on getting started with food plots in your county contact your county’s UF/IFAS Extension Office

Wood ducks could use your help this time of year

Wood ducks could use your help this time of year

Wood ducks are one of the most colorful ducks in North America. Breeding males showcase an unbelievable combination of colors including a red bill and eyes, a metallic purplish-green crested head, black cheeks with thick white stripes, a maroon chest and rump, black and blue wings, dark yellow sides, and a white belly. The drab grayish-brown females are most easily recognized by their white eye ring and crested head.

 

A brightly colored male wood duck. Photo: USFWS National Digital Library

A brightly colored male wood duck. Photo: USFWS National Digital Library

 

A pair of wood ducks with the more drably colored female in the foreground.  Photo: USFWS National Digital Library

A pair of wood ducks with the more drably colored female in the foreground. Photo: USFWS National Digital Library

 

Another distinguishing characteristic of wood ducks is their habit of nesting in Florida. Few species of ducks do this.

In Florida, wood ducks begin laying eggs in cavities during late January. They prefer cavities located within a half mile of permanent water bodies. They like cavities in large trees that have clear access to a large entry hole, and shrubs nearby to offer protection for newly-hatched ducklings.

In areas with few large cavity trees, nest boxes can provide alternative locations to nest. Nest boxes intended for wood ducks should be made of natural wood: cedar is a good option because it weathers well. Boxes should be mounted with the entrance hole 6 or more feet above the ground or the surface of the water (if placed over a pond or swamp). Nesting hens will appreciate you placing some cedar wood shavings in the bottom of the box to serve as nesting material. Adding a predator guard below the nest box will greatly increase the chances the hen and her eggs/ducklings don’t get eaten by snakes or raccoons.

It’s best to have nest boxes in place before egg laying begins, which is right about now: late January. However, it’s never too late in the year to put up a new nest box. A box put out later in the year may be useful for a late-nesting hen. Many females have more than one brood during the long nesting long season which won’t end until late summer, so opportunities exist for a nest box installed later in the year to get used.

Wood ducks were given their name because they spend much of their time in wooded swamps, ponds, creeks, rivers, and freshwater wetlands. They prefer bodies of water that have 25-50% open water with 50-75% vegetative cover (a mix of shrubs, emergent plants, and trees) where they can hide and feed.

Wood ducks are sometimes called the “acorn duck” because of their fondness for these treats that fall from oak trees. They have a special preference for acorns from water oaks, laurel oaks, and shumard oaks. They also enjoy duck weed, smartweed, waterlily, seeds from many sedges, rushes, and grasses, as well as fruits from native trees and shrubs and occasionally invertebrates (spiders, insects, snails, crawfish).

Several adaptations differentiate wood ducks from other waterfowl and equip them for life in both woods and water. Well-developed toes and claws allow them to grab onto tree branches while perching. The placement of their legs near the center of their bodies allows them to walk on land more gracefully than most other ducks. Their broad wings and long wide tail increase maneuverability while flying to their cavity nest.

To learn more about wood ducks and what you can do to provide habitat for them, see this publication from UF/IFAS Extension.

Author: Holly Ober – holly.ober@ufl.edu

I am an Associate Professor and Extension Specialist in the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation. My research covers wildlife ecology, habitat management, and identifying creative ways to cope with nuisance wildlife.