Small Landowner Project, Southeastern Pennsylvania

Little Habitat Patches Help Wildlife, Too

Ten years ago Carl and Mary Graybill built a handsome Colonially inspired house on 5.5 acres near Annville in southeastern Pennsylvania. Carl is the retired director of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Bureau of Information and Education. He and Mary love watching wildlife – which was not all that common on the intensively farmed landscape where the Graybills built their new home. So they decided to do something about it: Turn part of a farm field into young forest.

landowner with newly planted aspen

Small when planted, these aspens will quickly grow to become trees, forming a patch of young forest./C. Fergus

The first step was planting a windbreak of 64 6- to 7-foot-tall hemlocks, firs, and spruces in 2005. From that core of shelter-providing conifers, the Graybills expanded the habitat into an adjoining field using a semicircle of young trees and shrubs. Now, instead of corn or soybeans, that three quarters of an acre is growing aspens (140 seedlings planted in spring 2013) ringed by a band of lower-growing silky dogwood, gray-stemmed dogwood, and winterberry holly shrubs, also added in 2013. Using a shovel, Carl planted the young trees and shrubs about 5 feet apart. He watered the seedlings, then stood back and watched them grow in the rich limestone soil.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, a person is a forestland owner if they own 1 acre or more that is not maintained as lawn and is 10 percent stocked with trees – “and those can be really small trees,” says Jim Finley, a professor at Penn State University who studies private forest ownership. Says Finley, “The majority of woodland owners in Pennsylvania have small tracts – of 738,000 owners that we’ve identified, 416,000 own 9 acres or less, with an average ownership size of only 2.7 acres.” A similar situation exists in other northeastern states as well.

To the Graybills, those statistics highlight the need for small landowners to take an active role in making habitat. “You may think that your couple of acres are not very important in the overall scheme of things,” says Carl, “but in fact, you can make a big difference for wildlife on even a small parcel of land. And consider what a difference thousands of similar-thinking landowners can make on a statewide or regional basis.” As a consultant to the Wildlife Management Institute, Carl conducts workshops for private landowners and foresters who serve them, plus logger training through the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. Whenever he makes a presentation, Carl stresses how creating young-forest habitat delivers a greater diversity of wildlife.

Songbirds Start Showing Up

Carl grew up on a farm, and it’s clear that he likes green, growing things – especially if they help wildlife. He reports that a pair of brown thrashers, active russet-colored songbirds, have appeared on his property for the first time since the Graybills took up residence. “They may be attracted to secure nesting sites in the conifers,” he says, adding, “I’m looking forward to seeing what other kinds of birds show up as the young aspens continue to grow.”

The ones he planted in 2013 were 2 to 4 feet tall. “A few years down the road, they’ll be a lot taller, and their underground root systems should send up more stems through root suckering. Each autumn, their leaves will fall and deteriorate, which will cause the soil to slowly change. It will be interesting to see what other kinds of plants then come in.

brown thrashers

Thicket-loving birds like brown thrashers may quickly take up residence in even small patches of young forest./E. Guthro

“There are a lot of small landowners who probably have never thought about how they can easily improve wildlife diversity – that they can have a real impact on the kinds and numbers of wild animals present on their property. When I give programs, I point out that harvesting trees will quickly give rise to regrowing young forest – soon you’ll start seeing many kinds of wild animals that weren’t present before. That’s a new idea for many people, and it’s one that appeals to a lot of folks.”

Carl knows that many birds need young forest and will thrive nowhere else – birds like the brown thrashers that have taken up residence in his backyard habitat, along with gray catbirds, indigo buntings, and field sparrows, plus ones such as whip-poor-wills and ruffed grouse on larger tracts of new dense young forest. As they migrate north in spring and south in autumn, birds of many different species like to set down in young-forest habitat, to rest in a protected setting (hawks and other predators have a hard time seeing and catching them in the dense growth) and to find food needed to fuel their long continent-spanning flights.

“I think that making a small patch of young forest is a really nifty idea,” says Penn State professor Finley. “Our studies consistently show that a major reason people give for owning forest land is to view wild animals.” What Carl and Mary Graybill are doing, he adds, is “a good example that, if followed, will help more landowners enjoy the sights and sounds of a broad range of wildlife.”

Learn More

For more information, contact Carl Graybill at, 717-222-1053. And see the attachment below, "The Woods in Your Backyard: Creating Natural Areas from Existing Lawn or Pasture," from the University of Maryland Extension Service.

PDF icon Woods in Your Backyard.pdf1.87 MB