Improving Old Fields

Old fields can be planted with native shrubs to create wildlife-friendly thickets – or shrubs already growing on the site can be allowed to spread on their own. Plants that offer excellent food (fruits, seeds, buds, and browse) and hiding cover include pokeweed, alder, dogwood, hawthorn, crabapple, elderberry, winterberry, nannyberry, blackberry, wild plum, wild raisin, sumac, and Virginia creeper.


Planting native shrubs in old fields makes them into better wildlife habitat./USFWS

Many shrubs flower beautifully in the spring, and turn brilliant colors in autumn to attract migrating birds, which feed on the shrubs’ fruit and then disperse their seeds in their travels. Old fields support coneflower, milkweed, black-eyed susans, and other flowering plants used by pollinating insects. Apple trees in old fields provide important food for wildlife; landowners often find it rewarding to take a chainsaw and “release” apple trees by cutting down surrounding trees before they shade the apple trees out. To keep an old field functioning as productive habitat, periodically remove taller hardwood trees (they make great firewood, or brushpiles for rabbits to hide in). Periodic mowing or brush-hogging can rejuvenate plants and shrubs in old field settings.

Among the many animals that use shrubby old fields are ruffed grouse, woodcock, wild turkeys, bobwhite quail, ring-necked pheasants, cottontail rabbits, white-tailed deer, black bears, and songbirds such as towhees, brown thrashers, kingbirds, indigo buntings, gray catbirds, golden-winged warblers, and field sparrows.

For more information, see Managing Shrublands and Old Fields, in Managing Grasslands, Shrublands and Young Forest Habitats for Wildlife.

To develop and carry out a plan for improving and maintaining old fields as wildlife habitat, consult with a wildlife biologist or a natural resource professional. These contacts can provide help. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS, offers advice and funding to private landowners who want to make young forest for wildlife.

A wide range of conservation partners have created habitat demonstration areas where people can go see young forest and view the wildlife that these areas readily attract.