Wildlife Habitat

Wildlife Habitat

Regardless of how a pond is built or managed, fish are not the only animals that will benefit from its presence. In fact, creatures such as frogs, salamanders, turtles, and many birds may begin using a new pond immediately, often before fish are established. While it’s true we don’t often go to a pond just to watch wildlife, a brood of wood ducks or a deer coming to drink can highlight a fishing trip. What child is not fascinated watching the dervishing of whirligig beetles on the glasssmooth surface of a pond?

The point is, a pond is not just a “fish” pond. It is a community of many living things, most of which depend on each other for survival. The pond itself forms a connecting link between the aquatic and terrestrial worlds. By considering the pond’s influence on land animals as well as water dwellers, the pond owner can enjoy the best of both worlds.


To enhance wildlife habitat around a pond with livestock nearby, the first thing to do is start driving fence posts. Fencing has been recommended in nearly every pond booklet and leaflet ever written. The same recommendation will be included in every booklet printed in the future. Fencing is an important, if not the most important, measure needed on most ponds to protect and enhance wildlife habitat. The effects of livestock grazing and trampling around concentration areas like ponds have been well documented in many scientific and popular publications. Livestock may make a pond edge more attractive to mourning doves, but the bare mud will offer little to other wildlife.

Planting the Pond Periphery

Planting the pond area has already been discussed to some extent from the standpoint of erosion and sediment control. However, pond owners should also be aware that vegetative cover would largely influence what types of wildlife regularly use the pond.

In native rangeland, merely fencing the grassed area around the pond will provide the low, herbaceous cover needed to benefit ground nesting birds and mammals. If the pond is to be located in cropland or tame pasture, a native grass mixture should be planted within the fenced area. The Natural Resources Conservation Service’s specifications for range seeding and critical area planting should be followed.

Depending on the land available, tree and shrub plantings should be considered. A windbreak of trees on the south and west sides of the pond will provide cover for birds and small mammals and help reduce wave action and turbidity in the pond. A two-row planting of cottonwood or autumn olive and Rocky Mountain juniper or redcedar will usually begin to provide some wind protection within 5-7 years after planting.

Random clump plantings of trees and shrubs can also be incorporated if sufficient space is available. Plants which are adapted to the site conditions and have proven wildlife values should be used. Some woody plants known to be attractive to wildlife include the native dogwoods, wild plums, aromatic sumac, redcedar, autumn olive and multiflora rose. In some parts of eastern Kansas, cedar and rose have proven to be problem invaders on grasslands, so their use in wildlife plantings may not be desirable. Other plants can be substituted, however, and still achieve results. The pond owner is invited to contact the local Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism, Natural Resources Conservation Service, or Extension Service office to obtain technical assistance in planning vegetation introductions.

Waterfowl Management

Ponds with permanent water will attract a variety of birds, ranging from tiny shorebirds to geese. Most pond owners enjoy seeing waterfowl use their ponds, and most ponds can be enhanced to increase chances for their usage. However, the decision to manage a pond for waterfowl must be made before the pond is built. No matter which management technique is eventually used, a water control structure must be included in the dam. Nearly all successful waterfowl efforts on impoundments require some water level manipulation.

The most suitable method for attracting waterfowl during migration is to provide a flooded food source. This can be accomplished by lowering the pond’s level 2-3 feet during late June or July. A grain crop such as millet should be seeded on exposed mud flats just as soon as the water is removed. The water should be maintained at this lower level while the millet germinates and grows. The water level can be raised back to normal beginning about October 1. This will create flooded food source highly attractive to many kinds of waterfowl.

Conditions almost as desirable can be created simply by drawing the water down in late June or July, allowing annual weeds and grasses to develop naturally on exposed mud flats. Reflooding should begin about October 1. This is a simpler method and is often just as successful as sowing a grain crop.

Some potential problems must be considered before a pond is managed for waterfowl by using water-level fluctuation. Water supply often is a limiting factor in pond management for waterfowl. Unless sufficient inflow is available for reflooding, lowering water levels should not be attempted. If a pond cannot be refilled, the decreased water depth may be harmful to fish during the winter. Another problem results even if enough water is available for refilling. Decomposition of flooded vegetation may result in a rapid loss of oxygen in the water and can cause substantial fish kills. Lastly, a pond built to maximize waterfowl use would contain extensive areas of shallow water with large amounts of aquatic vegetation desired. Fishponds, on the other hand, minimize shallow water areas so that excessive aquatic vegetation is avoided.

If land is available, a more suitable way to provide waterfowl habitat without interfering with fish management potential is to construct a 1-3 acre shallow water area below the pond dam. Water from the pond can be used to seasonally flood the area, creating a man-made marsh. Timely drainage during May should result in a dense stand of desirable wetland plants such as smartweed, which can be flooded in the fall. Shallow water areas can also be drained in late June or July and seeded to millet if the pond owner desires. Such shallow water areas offer many more wildlife options than trying to rely on water level manipulation within the pond itself. The pond-marsh combination provides for much more efficient use of water since only a 12-15 inch average depth is needed in the marsh. To further enhance such shallow water areas, openings should be mowed in dense, tall vegetation before flooding. A good rule of thumb is to provide a marsh habitat with half open water and half emergent vegetation. Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism district wildlife biologists and Natural Resources Conservation Service personnel can provide further information regarding construction of the cost-share funding for marshes.

Habitat Maintenance

All too often it is assumed that, when wildlife habitat is established, the job is done. Since vegetation is the major component of habitat, the habitat is always changing due to plant succession. Consider an abandoned crop field. For the first several years, it is mostly annual grasses and weeds. Gradually, it grows into perennial grasses and weeds. Over the eastern third of the state, such areas will eventually become dominated by brush and trees.

The secret of encouraging wildlife use of a habitat is to maintain a stage of succession which will benefit the kinds of wildlife desired. Since it is impossible to hold vegetation in just one stage for any great length of time, it becomes necessary to set back succession and allow the process to occur again, thus recycling the most beneficial succession stages.

Succession is more rapid in eastern Kansas than in the more arid regions of western Kansas. Nevertheless, it occurs statewide and must be considered in a maintenance program. Limited or controlled burning, mowing, plowing, discing, and grazing can all be valuable habitat maintenance tools. Even chemicals, with careful use, can be of value. Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism district wildlife biologists can assist in recommending and explaining habitat maintenance procedures.