Preserving Riverside Property for Wildlife on a Family Farm

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A picture taken around 1910 of what was called “Williams Prairie” and is now my farm. Pleasant Hill History Center photo shared with the author.

Our farm is bordered on two sides by the river. I have a picture taken around 1910 from the bluffs across the river from our farm, and the difference between then and now is shocking — there are hardly any trees along the riverbank. When my family purchased this land in the 1960s, mom and dad decided to take “good crop ground” out of production to allow Nature to do her thing. As unpopular as that decision was with pretty much everyone except my parents (and none of these other people were paying the mortgage, so you can guess how much attention my parents paid to them), it was the right decision.

This new buffer between the crop ground and the river reduced the amount of soil erosion from flooding, and the local fauna now had safe places to live and work. As the woods have grown and expanded over the last 50 plus years, we have become home to goodly numbers of deer, coyotes, raccoons, opossums, and a few foxes. We see red-tailed hawks, Cooper hawks, goshawks, buzzards, herons, geese, ducks, and occasionally bald eagles in the sky.

Owning Riverside Property

There are a few drawbacks to living next to a navigable river, including the regular flooding of the fields — a major problem if it floods after the crops have been planted — and the occasional boater not realizing (or ignoring) that the land is not part of the river. We’ve had to approach people who decided to camp on our property and light a fire, which can turn into a dangerous issue very quickly in the wild woods.

Even with these drawbacks, there are so many benefits to having the river as a neighbor. The crop fields next to the river have a constant water source because the water table is so close to the surface. In a drought year, this can be the difference between harvest and nothing. Allowing the trees to return has made the riverbank sturdier and less likely to erode, which keeps the land where it should be. The woods and river are a peaceful area to relax and recharge, and a great place to see some of the critters that live alongside us.

Current picture of the river and field area – what a change from the early 1900s! (Google Earth)

Stocking Wilde Turkeys On a Farm Property

Many years ago, one of the local wildlife agencies installed a wild turkey flock on our farm. For the next few years, we would see them out in the fields, picking through the debris and doing the things turkeys do. At one point, we found out that turkeys really can fly, and they were flying back and forth across the river, maybe splitting the flock? For a long time after that, no turkeys were heard or seen on the farm. We assumed they either flew across the river for their permanent home, found somewhere else to nest, or had all been eaten by the coyotes. I saw maybe a dozen hens with a few toms out in the field last year — they were back! I never really heard them, but it was nice to see that they had not all disappeared.

This year, I got to see just how well that flock was doing. At least two dozen hens and toms wandered into view at the edge of the cornfield one morning! Now it was a morning I would not have expected to see much wildlife out. It was in the high 30s to low 40s, but windy, and the overnight freezing rain had turned to blowing rain. But there they were, pecking around on the ground, preening, chasing each other, and flapping their wings.

I was not expecting to see this many wild turkeys! (photo by Keba M Hitzeman)

After a while, they moved along to the driveway, loitered there for a half hour or so, then slowly made their way down our driveway towards the road. They crossed over the state route and disappeared into the neighbor’s field. We went out later, and they had utterly vanished.

Whether they are nesting on our farm or were simply passing through, it’s always enjoyable to see our wild neighbors. We intentionally provide habitat for them, and sometimes, you don’t know if your efforts are providing a benefit. Mornings like that one make me think we’re doing something right!

Have you let an area of your farm or backyard “go wild”? What wildlife (birds, insects, mammals, etc) have you seen? Have there been any new species?

Keba M. Hitzemanis an advocate, baseball fan, caregiver, chicken wrangler, daughter, farmer, fiber artist, gamer, gardener, herbalist, laborer, manager, musician, nature-lover, potter, shepherdess, and teacher. She owns and operates Innisfree on the Stillwater, a former beef cattle farm, where she currently raises sheep and goats. Read all of Keba’s posts in her GRIT series,Returning to Innisfree.