Habitat for Wildlife: Upland Game Habitat Recommendations

The descriptions that follow offer guidelines to help you establish and maintain habitat for upland wildlife. For more information refer to the directory appearing at the end of this article for the name and number of your Regional Habitat Wildlife Biologist.

Nesting and Brood Cover

Nesting and brood cover are typically the most important component to increasing the production of upland birds in a given tract. Serious consideration should be given to establishment of nest cover plantings if you are interested in seeing significant results from your efforts. In most cases a shortage of quality nesting cover is the reason for depressed populations of bobwhite quail, meadowlarks, and other ground-nesting birds. Other species such as cottontail rabbits, small mammals like the meadow vole or field mouse, and a variety of butterflies and valuable insects, rely on similar habitat conditions and likewise can benefit from your efforts.

Warm-Season Grasses

Although currently uncommon in Maryland, warm-season grasses made up most of the grassland that originally existed in Maryland and throughout the United States. As interest in native plantings grows these species will become more popular, replacing introduced or exotic species such as fescue.

Warm-season grass plantings in pastures and on marginal ground removed from agricultural production have proven to be the key to the recent rebound of upland birds in the Mid-West. Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, the Dakotas and others are experiencing some of the highest quail and pheasant populations in decades. Professional researchers, biologists, landowners, farmers, and sportsmen seem to agree that these grasses are a major reason for the rebound. Recent trials in Maryland confirm that properly managed warm-season grass plantings result in population increases for obligate species. Likewise, survey data indicate that the tremendous decline in grassland songbirds can only be addressed through expansion of quality native grass habitat.

Furthermore, most warm-season grasses have tremendous value as pasture forage and hay. In fact, compared to cool-season grasses, they are considerably more palatable, produce significantly higher weight gain, and are available as forage during dry summer months. Finally, warm-season grasses require more attention to detail during establishment, however, once you have established a stand, the benefits of low-maintenance and increased wildlife should far outweigh the initial effort.

Seeding Recommendations - Herbaceous Vegetation

The Maryland Wildlife Division currently recommends warm-season grasses for all herbaceous plantings in upland applications including Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, Federal "WHIP", and Conservation Reserve Program practices. The following provides specific information as to the species selection, planting rates, establishment and management of warm-season grass plantings.

Native Warm-Season Mixtures

IMPORTANT: All seeding rates are per acre of "Pure Live Seed" (P.L.S.), P.L.S. is determined by multiplying seed purity times germination rate. When you purchase warm-season grasses by the P.L.S. pound you can ensure that you are paying for, and planting, only live seed, not inert material. Remember, please specify P.L.S. when ordering seed. Also, whenever you order seed to be planted in a mixture, request that it be delivered premixed. Attempting to blend large quantities of warm-season grass seed can be very difficult and time consuming. Since most companies do not charge for this service it is recommended that you take advantage of it.

MIX 1: Upland/Dry Soils:

3lbs. Indian Grass Sorghastrum nutans
2lbs. Big Blue-Stem Andropogon gerardi
1lb.Little Blue-stem Schizachyrium scoparium
*(see below)

MIX 2: Lowland/Moist Soils:

3lbs. Big Blue-stem Andropogon gerardi
2lbs. Indian Grass Sorghastrum nutans
1lb. Switchgrass Panicum virgatum
*(see below)

Premixed variety, plant 1/4 lb. to the acre.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Division recommends a variety of forbs or wildflowers, including the following native species:

  • Blackeyed Susan Rudbecki hirta,

  • New England Aster Aster novea angliae,

  • Lanceleaf Coreopsis Coreopsis lanceolata,

  • Ox Eye Sunflower Heliopsis helianthoide,

  • and Partridge Pea Cassia fasciculata.

  • (Note, if the above species are unavailable you could substitute other non-invasive legumes or wildflowers at the recommended rates. Call your local wildlife habitat biologist for details.)

    Nurse Crops
    Nurse crops are annuals or short-lived perennials that provide rapid soil stabilization, and help keep weeds down without competing with the grass/forb seedlings. Nurse crops can be planted at the same time as the grass/forb seed. They can be mixed with the grass/forb seed and hand-broadcast together. On large plantings, oats can be drilled prior to, or after seeding.

    Selected Nurse Crops
    Oats: Apply at a rate of 50 pounds/acre in spring plantings. Use 100 pounds/acre in mid-autumn plantings, as it will winter-kill and heavier seeding rates assure better soil holding ability.

    Annual Rye: Plant at a rate of 5-10 pounds/acre.

    Canada Wild Rye: A short-lived perennial grass that grows rapidly. Apply at a rate of 3-4 pounds/acre.

    Establishment of Warm-Season Grasses

    Warm-season grasses, although valued for their long-term benefits to wildlife, low-maintenance requirements and high nutrition as pasture forage and hay, require more attention and time to establish. However, because they are difficult to establish they will rarely spread outside of the original planting...this is especially important when establishing grasslands adjacent to valuable agricultural crops. Be patient. It may take two growing seasons for a stand to be completely established.

    With few exceptions, these species should be planted using a specialized warm-season or rangeland grass planter or drill. All species should be drilled as shallow as possible, 1/4 to ½ of an inch. Burying seed any deeper will prevent adequate germination. If a drill is not available, clean seed can be broadcast or drop-seeded (cultipacker seeder) onto a firm seed-bed. See broadcast seeding recommendations for specific techniques.

    Soil Preparation and Planting

    Proper soil preparation is critical to the success of any planting. Remove existing vegetation by herbicide, cultivating, or a combination of the two. Soil test sites and bring fertility up to medium levels for phosphorus and potassium. Do not apply nitrogen to warm-season grass planting sites. Nitrogen will only stimulate weeds that could dominate the warm-season grass seedlings. Finally, pH levels should be between five and eight for warm-season grass plantings, if necessary, apply lime as indicated.

    Existing Turf Fields

    A) Herbiciding:

    1. Use a non-persistent, glyphosate-based, herbicide such as "Round-Up." Follow manufacturer's instructions.

      • Apply once in previous fall, or in mid-spring for spring plantings.

      • Apply once in early fall for fall planting.

      • Till soil and plant. Remove dead sod to create smooth seedbed.

    2. Using American Cyanimid's Plateau herbicide, spray existing sod according to manufacturer's recommendations prior to or immediately after planting. Follow-up applications after emergence are a viable option and will not destroy the valuable grasses and wildflowers.

    B) Cultivation: Cultivate 2-3 times to kill grass and to work up soil. Remove dead sod to create smooth seedbed.

    C) Sod Removal: Use a sod-cutter to remove the sod, and then till the exposed soil to prepare the seedbed.

    Old Fields

    A) Herbiciding: Mow in early spring, then spray twice, once in mid-to-late spring and once in early fall. Till soil after final spraying, and plant, or use no-till seeder and plant directly into dead sod.

    B) Cultivation: Prior to planting, cultivate soil 4-6 inches deep periodically throughout the growing season to kill rhizomatous perennial weeds. After the final cultivation late in the year, a dormant fall seeding can be made. If further weed control is desired, the planting can be done in the following spring, allowing for light surface cultivation to kill weeds prior to spring planting.

    Existing Agricultural Fields

    A) Herbiciding: Spray once in mid-spring for spring planting, or once in early fall after removal of crop for fall planting. Till soil and plant, or use no-till seeder and plant directly into soil with no soil tillage.

    B) Cultivation: Work up seed bed as for any other crop. If rhizomatous perennials are present, work up soil all year, as recommended in "old field." After the existing vegetation is removed, the seed bed should be prepared by tilling or discing, and then dragging or raking smooth. Properly prepared seed beds will be smooth and free of large clumps.

    Planting Dates

    Fall Planting - Plant from early September to freeze-up

    Advantages -

    1. Seed over winters as it would in nature and comes up in spring on its own schedule, when conditions are right.

    2. In general, forb seed has greater germination.

    3. Recommended for planting on droughty soils because seed germinates when soil moisture levels are optimal.

    Disadvantages -

    1. Grass seed often has poorer germination

    2. Because weeds will have a head start the following Spring, there is limited opportunity for early season weed control by cultivation.

    3. NOT recommended for clay soils, due to difficulty in preparing proper seed bed after dry summer months.

    Early Spring Planting - Plant from March to April  

    Advantages -

    1. Forbs will germinate better than if planted in late spring.

    2. Grass seed will germinate better than if planted in fall.

    3. Droughty soils should be planted as soon as possible in Spring, if it is not possible to plant in fall.


    1. Limited opportunity for early, cool-season weed control.

    2. It is NOT recommended to plant heavy soils in early spring, as it is difficult to work these soils

    Late Spring Planting - Plant from May to end of June

    Advantages -

    1. More time for soil preparation. This is important for planting on heavy soils.

    2. Longer time for weed control.

    3. Best time to plant warm season grasses.

    Disadvantages -

    1. Increased chance of drought conditions.

    2. Overall, poorer for germination, except for warm season species. Many cool-season species will not germinate until fall or the next spring. This allows the weeds a one-year head start.

    Broadcast Planting Methods

    Broadcast planting includes spreading seed with fertilizer spreaders, other "spinner-type" seeders, and drop-seeders (e.g., Brillion-type seeders). Because of the light, "fluffy" nature of the seed, broadcast seeding of warm-season grasses can only be accomplished with "clean" seed. This means seed that is at least 75% Pure-live seed. Seed that is less than 75% pure should only be planted with a specialized warm-season grass drill or planter.

    When broadcast seeding, extreme care must be taken to ensure good seed to soil contact while limiting maximum seed depth to one-quarter to one-half of an inch. Seed should be rolled lightly after seeding. However, do not be concerned about covering all of the seed, in fact, it is better to leave some on the surface than cover it too heavily.

    1. Prepare soil for planting by tilling (plow, disc, and drag). Raking or dragging will loosen the soil to allow incorporation of the seed into the surface soil.

    2. Inoculate legume seeds prior to planting. Mix inoculated legume seeds with forb/wildflower seeds. These can be mixed together with the grass seed to form a uniform mix. Plant the mixed seed.

    3. Drag lightly and firm with a roller or cultipacker, avoid firming soil when wet.

    4. Note: on steep slopes, it is often beneficial to plant a nurse crop and/or mulch the planting.

    Post Planting Maintenance

    Year One
    Weed Control
    If straw mulch is used, control annual weeds by mowing to 4-6 inches in the first year. Invading weeds can dominate the prairie seedlings, by depriving them of water, light and space. Do NOT let weeds get higher than 12 to 14 inches before mowing. Cutting down tall weeds can smother the small seedlings below.

    If a nurse crop is used, do not mow in the first year, unless weeds become a serious problem. If weeds are dense and begin to grow up to 16 inches, cut them down along with the nurse crop to prevent shading out of prairie seedlings.

    Year Two
    Mow to 12 to 18 inches in early summer if weeds are a problem. Mowing lower could harm plants and nesting animals.

    Apply PLATEAU herbicide according to manufacturer's recommendations.

    Year Three and Beyond
    Once your stand has established itself, prescribed or controlled burning is the most effective method of maintaining and rejuvenating a stand of warm-season grasses. Burn one third of your total grass acreage every year. Controlled burning will ensure a cleaner and more valuable stand over a longer period of time. Burning is a lot easier and less expensive than you may think. However, it is not to be taken lightly and requires that you possess permits to get started. Contact your local Project Forester for permits and assistance.

    Haying or grazing at the proper times, using proper methods, can also help maintain a stand. Cut hay or graze to a minimum height of six inches and avoid, if possible, haying or grazing any stand during the peak nesting period between April 15th and August 15th. Also, it is important to rotate hayed or grazed areas on an annual basis.

    *Note: Haying or grazing of land enrolled in commodity or set-aside programs such as Conservation Reserve (CRP) may be illegal. Contact your local Farm Services Agency office for details.

    You can mow your grass to maintain it; however, this is not the most desirable alternative. Once established, mow one third of your stand every other year. This will keep woody growth from encroaching. However, repeated mowing will create a layer of "litter" on the ground, this mulch layer will eventually crowd seedlings and make movement of young birds difficult. The mulch also makes the stand less attractive to those insects that are so important to young birds. If you do decide to mow, it may be necessary to lightly disc the stand every three or four years in order to turn over the litter layer, destroy woody growth, and encourage dormant grass seed and native annuals.

    NOTE: It is important to understand that you are required by law to control noxious weeds, including Johnson grass and Canada Thistle, on your property. Should you encounter these species in your plantings, your first priority should be control of these weeds, even at the expense of the planted grasses. Contact your county weed control specialist for more information.

    Finally, if possible, avoid working in your fields between April 15th and August 15th. Mowing, discing, or fire management, during this time period, can be detrimental to a variety of bird, mammal, and invertebrate species.

    Food Plot Specifications

    Korean Lespedeza: Korean lespedeza is a low-growing annual that normally reseeds itself for two or three years. Korean lespedeza seed provides quality winter food and brood habitat for many species, especially quail. Broadcast alone at a rate of 15 lbs./ac. in all soils except sand, or in a mixture with Warm or Cool-season grasses. Plant in spring, no later than mid-April.

    Grain Sorghum: Sorghum can be established in most soils. If planted in rows, it should be planted at a rate of 8 lbs./ac., and a depth of ½ in. Rows can be 7 ½ to 36 inches apart, with 2 to 8 in. between plants. Broadcast at a rate of 15 lbs./ac. Plant no later than June 30. Sorghum provides winter food as well as cover for many wildlife species.

    Millet (proso, pearl, or brown-top): Proso is an excellent dove food source. It is also a valuable fall food for ducks and wild turkey. Drill alone at 15 lbs./ac. in rows 15" wide or broadcast at 30 lbs./ac. Allow 70 days to maturity.

    More quail habitat information can be found in the
    Comprehensive Guide to Creating, Improving & Maintaining Bobwhite Habitat

    Dove Field Management

    To attract doves, a minimum 3 to 5 acre field should be planted to sunflowers and buckwheat. The field should have strips of sunflowers and a few strips of buckwheat. We recommend the Perdovick or Black-oil variety of sunflowers. The sunflowers should be planted in mid-May so as to mature in mid to late August. The buckwheat should be planted at the same time but will mature earlier than the sunflowers and attract and hold doves until the sunflowers mature. A pre-emergent trifluran-based herbicide ("Treflan", "Surflan", or others) can be used to keep the soil weed free under the sunflowers. Doves prefer it open under the sunflowers for easy access and for ease of finding seed.

    After the sunflowers ripen (7 to 10 days prior to opening day), strips should be mowed through the dove field with additional strips being mowed periodically over the remainder of the dove season. Once the seed in the mowed strips is used up you should disc those strips to expose some bare soil and grit, also useful to attract doves.

    Dove Field Seeding Rates and Methods

    Sunflowers: (Options)

    1. Use corn planter and plant in wide rows. Herbicide and/or cultivate to control weeds.

    2. Drill in 7 ½ or 15 inch rows at 8 lbs. to the acre. Herbicide and/or cultivate to control weeds.

    3. Broadcast at 10-12 lbs. to the acre. Herbicide and/or cultivate to expose soil and reduce plant population, allowing seed heads to fully develop.

    Buckwheat: (Options)

    1. Drill at 20-30 lbs. per acre in 7 ½ inch rows.

    2. Broadcast at 30-40 lbs. per acre.

    Seed Suppliers

    Listed below are suppliers which the Maryland Department of Natural Resources knows carry the recommended seed or mixtures. The list is for your convenience only and should not be considered an endorsement of the product or supplier. The more common species should be available at your local agricultural dealer or cooperative.

    Sharp Bros. Seed
    Route 4 Box 237A
    Clinton, MO. 64735

    Osenbaugh Grass Seeds
    RR 1, Box 106
    Lucas, IA. 50151

    Stock Seed Farms
    Box 112
    Murdock, NE. 68407

    Prairie Nursery
    P.O. Box 306
    Westfield, WI. 53964
    (608) 296-3679

    Hilltop Seeds LLC
    Chris Yeager

    Request more information or assistance through e-mail to: customerservice.dnr@maryland.gov

    Maryland Department of Natural Resources
    Wildlife and Heritage Service
    580 Taylor Ave., E-1
    Annapolis MD 21401
    (410) 260-8540
    Toll-free in Maryland: 1-877-620-8DNR, Ext. 8540