When it comes to rangelands, prairies and pastures, grasses and grass-like plants (collectively called graminoids) seem to dominate the landscape. Even wetlands are often dominated by graminoids. But with all of the grass present throughout Oklahoma, there is still a vital habitat component that must be present for nearly all species of wildlife: forbs.
Forbs are broad-leafed herbaceous flowering plants that aren't classified as grasses, sedges or rushes. To most people, forbs are just "weeds." But for biologists, forbs are valuable pieces of the habitat puzzle. Even though grasses and grass-like plants seem to be everywhere, there are actually more species of forbs in Oklahoma (1,500-plus) than graminoids (about 550). So why are forbs so important when it comes to quail, wild turkey, deer and other wildlife? The reasons are many.
Plant and Animal Diversity
Forbs are important because they contribute a large percentage to the species diversity of an area, both plants and animals. Fields and forests with very few plant species, especially forbs, are going to be much less attractive to wildlife. Not all wildlife needs or desires the same plants for food and cover, and forbs help provide that diversity throughout the year.
Forbs provide an important seasonal and year-round food source for wildlife. Up to 70 percent of the white-tailed deer's diet during the spring and summer may be forbs. In addition, forb seeds and leaves make up a large portion of the diet of bobwhites and wild turkeys year-round. No one plant can provide the nutritional needs of a wildlife species year-round. Some forbs are high in calcium, some high in phosphorus, and some high in protein. Forb diversity is key within a habitat to make sure all nutrients are present for wildlife.
Forbs are also an important cover component. Because a large number of forbs grow from 2 to 6 feet tall, and often in clumps or colonies, they provide great screening, loafing or hiding cover. Their general umbrella-like growth form provides open space at ground level for quail and other ground-dwelling wildlife to easily maneuver through while being protected by the vegetation overhead. In addition, some species of songbirds nest within or at the base of certain forbs because of their protective cover.
Insects play a vital role in the pollination of crops and native plants, and they are a critical part of the wildlife food chain. Even though grasses attract insects, forbs are superior when it comes to attracting the number and variety of insects needed for wildlife. Simply put, almost all, if not all, species of wildlife are insect-dependent for survival, whether directly or indirectly. Bobwhite chicks, as well as pheasant, wild turkey and songbirds, eat a diet almost entirely of insects to grow and develop, and forbs are the key to providing that insect-rich habitat.
Although forbs can appear "weedy" and less desirable than grass within the landscape, their importance for wildlife is imperative. For farmers and ranchers, forbs can make up more than 30 percent of the spring diet of cattle and can be an important forage source during drought. In addition, forbs can help attract large numbers of pollinators for crops and beneficial insects to control pests. For wildlife managers, a diverse community of forbs is an essential part of many quality habitats throughout Oklahoma.
For technical assistance with improving habitat on private property, contact Doug Schoeling, private lands biologist (western Oklahoma) with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, at (405) 590-2584, or RosaLee Walker, private lands biologist (eastern Oklahoma) at (918) 607-1518. For information about improving habitat for quail, contact Scott Cox, senior upland game biologist, at (405) 301-9945, or Kyle Johnson, quail restoration biologist, at (405) 684-1929.
For more information about wildlife and habitats in Oklahoma, go online to the Wildlife Department's website at wildlifedepartment.com.