Understand the three stages of forest succession to become a better bowhunter. Photo Credit: The Wildlife Society

Forest Succession: The Key to Finding Deer

  Cassie Gasaway   FeaturedConservation   February 18, 2021

People use different parts of their home the way deer use different parts of the forest. We cook in the kitchen, eat in the dining room, hang out in the living room and sleep in the bedroom. The forest isn’t subdivided by walls, but it does have different successional stages that game animals use for different purposes.

Forest succession is the pattern of change that takes place in an ecosystem over time. To learn more, we spoke with Brian Halbleib, cohost of the Habitat Podcast. He explained the three stages of forest succession, how wildlife uses each stage, and how bowhunters can turn that information into better hunting strategies.

Forest Succession 101

Review the stages of forest succession. Photo Credit: Mossy Oak

Halbleib calls the three forest stages “early successional,” “secondary successional” and “late successional,” but the jargon can change depending on who’s doing the talking. For example, some people refer to the secondary stage as “young forest,” and the third stage is sometimes called “old growth,” “complete forest” or “climax forest.”  But here, we’ll stick with Halbleib’s terms and definitions:

  1. An early successional forest is open, like a field, prairie or grassland. You’ll find forbs, young woody plants, and tall grasses and shrubs. The habitat also has a dense seed bank, which is a collection of dormant seeds from hardwood trees and other area vegetation.
  2. A secondary successional forest is generally thick with small trees with trunks of up to a few inches in diameter. Shrubs, grasses and other short vegetation are also abundant because sunlight still reaches the forest floor.
  3. A late successional forest is full of tall, mature trees with large, dense canopies that block sunlight and deter plant growth on the forest floor. The habitat seems open yet populated with tree trunks.

To help identify which forest stage you’re in, Halbleib said you can see over the vegetation in an early forest, you can’t see through the brush in a secondary forest and you can see through the trees in a late forest because the canopies are above your head.

Natural disasters like tornadoes and forest fires can restart forest succession. Humans also intervene at times with management tools that simulate natural disasters, including timber harvests or prescribed burns. A forest is usually considered early during the first 10 years after a reset, secondary in years 10 to 20, and late after 20 years. The process starts again when the trees are cut or destroyed.

How Wildlife Uses Each Forest Stage

Secondary successional forests provide great cover for wildlife. Photo Credit: Brittanica

Pollinators like bees and butterflies love early successional forests. Deer and turkeys find food in them: The former browse on forbs, while the latter search through the grass for bugs. Turkeys also use fields and grasslands for nesting. Rabbits thrive in this habitat, too, due to the abundance of young plant growth for food and overhead cover from predators.

Secondary successional forests provide wildlife with cover and security, making these areas ideal for hiding or resting. Sunlight still reaches the ground, so there are browsing opportunities for deer. Halbleib said this is an especially preferred stage for deer because it offers both bedding and feeding opportunities.

As deciduous trees take over, mature and develop, they drop hard mast, including acorns, walnuts, pecans, beechnuts and hickory nuts. Deer feed as they travel through these areas, but they go elsewhere to find cover. Turkeys feed on fallen mast, and also use the trees for roosting. Squirrels love late successional forests, as they can dwell in the treetops and forage on the ground for hard mast.

Plan an Ambush With Science

Scout the area and note places that are great for bedding and feeding. Photo credit: John Hafner

Habitat should dictate your bowhunting strategies. You can’t climb trees in early forests because there aren’t any trees to climb. Likewise, setting up a blind in a late successional forest is tricky because the habitat lacks ground-level cover to help conceal the blind. Take these things into consideration when you pick places to set up.

Deer and turkeys can often be found in areas where different types of habitat converge, because these edges provide the best access to food, cover and escape routes. You’ll find such places between a recent clear-cut and a mature hardwood stand, say, or between a swamp and a field. Edges are one of the six best spots for bowhunting whitetails.

Additionally, if you know which areas are suitable for feeding and bedding, you can set up accordingly. Deer are crepuscular, which means they’re most active at dawn and dusk. They feed more heavily at night and rest during the day. So, use Google Earth and Google Maps to identify different forest stages, narrow down your hunting options and refine your hunting strategy. Set up near food for late-afternoon and early-evening bowhunts to ambush deer as they travel from bedding areas to food sources. Or hunt the edge of bedding areas in the morning to find them returning from food sources. Remember to tweak your approach as the season progresses. Food availability affects deer movement. Click here to learn more. 

Manage Your Property

If you own or lease a property you can manage, try to create a diverse forest with all three successional stages to best provide for wildlife. In turn, you’ll have a better, healthier wildlife population, which will lead to better bowhunting opportunities.

But before you start chopping, burning or changing the landscape, consult an expert. State wildlife agencies have wildlife biologists who can suggest resources and offer advice to help you achieve your property management goals.

Halbleib recommended Dr. Craig Harper as a great resource. He is a professor and extension wildlife specialist at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture. His many publications provide information on food plots, early succession management, forest management for wildlife, white-tailed deer management and more.

No property of your own? Most state wildlife departments try to rotate through different successional growth stages on parcels of public land. Ask about volunteer projects that allow community members to get involvedand learn while helping to create a diverse landscape that’ll support both deer and bowhunters.

Listen to the Habitat Podcast with Halbleib for more tips and information on wildlife habitat and land management.

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