Wolfe Publishing Group

    Edge Feathering for Habitat

    By Eric Ressell

    As our fast-pace society continues to experience surging development and industrialization, habitat fragmentation remains an unfortunate fact of life for many wildlife species. 

With increasing habitat loss, suburban expansion, and growing human population, it is all too common and necessary that grassland species will continue to face adaption or certain decline as they cope with dwindling sheltering and foraging opportunities. On the forefront of this manmade fragmentation, of where these two worlds of human and wildlife needs collide, is where we can find a growing expanse of edge habitat. 

The concept of edge is generally defined as an ecotone, or region between two ecotypes or biological communities; areas of abundant biodiversity and richness within an abrupt transitional area. Of course, the most common instances of such ecotones are the boundaries of crop fields and grasslands with woodlands. Natural edges also exist alongside shelterbelts, riparian corridors, lakesides, and wetlands. 

Other examples of manmade edges are roadsides, powerline corridors or suburban interfaces. As wildlife conservationists and habitat managers, it is imperative that we educate and encourage our clients to establish and restore such rural and residential edges, so that these biological hotspots remain productive and protected from additional threats, including erosion, chemical drift and increased pressure from noxious species. 

This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, such as promoting prescribed burning along these edges, encouraging native vegetation, and targeting problematic invasive trees, shrubs, and weeds. We can also implement a unique habitat management technique known as edge feathering to ensure that maximum cover and shelter are created along these borders between woodlands and grasslands, thus promoting a gradual transitional area between the two ecotypes.

Edge feathering is accomplished by hinge cutting trees that are growing adjacent to an upland prairie, therefore producing a well-protected "soft" edge that will allow grassland species to maneuver along with a lower instance of predation, especially from raptors. This technique is enhanced further as the trees are hinge cut within a recommended buffer width of 50 – 100 feet from within the woodland and wrap around the entire perimeter of a prairie. 

This technique creates ample cover along the edge and encourages safe mobility underneath the fallen structures, especially as annual weeds and perennial plants grow up and become intermingled with the downed woody vegetation. Typically, tree species that tend to overhang are targeted, especially mature boxelders. 

Logistically, a single cut is made through the majority of the mainstem of the trunk, to the extent that the tree is felled on its own weight, but enough of the sapwood and outer bark is left to allow the tree to be supported as it is hinged in the direction of the prairie. The height of the initial cut can vary but is often accomplished at 2-4 feet off the ground. 

Mimicking naturally fallen structures is important and leaving fallen mature trees and large limbs at the edge of a prairie will create additional refuge. Edge feathering techniques are maximized by maintaining thermal cover by encouraging native shrubs, brambles, and conifers that will become well-established within the more mature successional stages of the woodland.

Collectively, implementing edge feathering and providing such dense and diverse cover along the entire expanse of the edge will create optimal sheltering opportunities for upland and grassland birds alike. A feathered edge, rich in native wildflowers and shrubs, will also promote an increase in insect productivity and create an ideal brood-rearing environment.

    Eric Ressel is a Farm Bill biologist and certified conservation planner with Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever

    Wolfe Publishing Group