Native Warm Season Grasses and Wildlife

William N. Grafton
Wildlife Specialist
WVU Extension Service

This article was published in the May 2001 issue of West Virginia Farm Bureau News.


Warm season grasses are not only good insurance against drought and autumn forage shortages but they also are excellent for wildlife.  Songbirds such as bobolinks, meadowlarks, and several types of sparrows build their nests on the ground, raise their young, and feed exclusively within grasslands.  Fields provide food and shelter for migrating warblers, thrushes, sparrows and larks in autumn.  Many hawks and owls, such as kestrels and barn owl search grasslands for food during winter months.

Native warm season grasses such as switchgrass, Indiangrass, and big bluestem grow in clumps.   Open areas between clumps permit young birds to move freely as they search for insects and seeds.  The clumps also allow nests to be built under the tufts of leaves.  This lets adult birds come and go easily without delay or detection by enemies that search for the nests.  Warm season grasses are a must if you want to have pheasants or bobwhite quail in West Virginia.  They are also heavily used by young turkey that live on a diet of insects and a few seeds.

     Rabbits also use hayfields, meadows, and pastures rabbits for food and cover.  Deer and groundhogs find food and shelter in all fields but don't prefer native warm-season grasses if cool-season grasses, cultivated crops, gardens, or forest mast is present. 

Reasonable compromises can eliminate most conflicts of encouraging wildlife while managing a farm for profit.  Recommendations for management are as follows:

      Avoid mowing areas with ground-nesting birds before August 1 (July 15 at lower elevations).
      Use rotational grazing and graze to 12 to 18 inches.  This leaves lots of cover, insects, and seeds for wildlife and keeps the grass healthy.
      Locate where birds are nesting in the field. Avoid mowing these areas until after August 1. Small unmowed areas or strips will be heavily used for food and shelter.
      Maintain a few patches of bare ground in areas of poor grass growth for killdeer and horned lark; all birds can use them as dusting areas.