Clemson Extension Forestry and Wildlife

Your Pond as a Focal Area for Wildlife: Supplemental Habitat

This series of articles aims to help you make better-informed decisions regarding the management of your pond for fish and wildlife value. In the previous article, we discussed the zones of a watershed and the associated plant communities. We established that a healthy pond is a product of healthy plant communities in each of the zones leading to the pond. We discussed the many valuable services that these plant communities provide (runoff management, nutrient capture, carbon storage, wildlife habitat, etc.). In this article, we will discuss additional structures that can be added to your pond to improve its value to wildlife.

Supplemental habitat consists of many things. It could be the addition of aquatic plants, submerged woody structures, nest boxes, artificial fish structures, docks, piers, fish feeders, or many other things. We will touch on a few of these in this article, beginning with plants. Establishing a shrubby component to portions of your shoreline and shallow areas provides several benefits. Shrubs offer shade to wildlife and fish. Shade is often overlooked when considering habitat. Thermal refuge is critical to the survival of many species of birds, reptiles, amphibians, and even your fish. Shrubs offer excellent nesting structure for songbird and wading bird species that utilize the pond. Our resident wood duck populations depend on these shrubby areas to serve as cover and brooding areas for their offspring. If the right shrub species are used, they can provide valuable food resources for waterfowl, songbirds, pollinators, etc. Species that are particularly valuable for improving wildlife habitat include: Groundseltree (Baccharis halimifolia), Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), Sweetpepperbush (Clethra alnifolia), Swamp titi (Cyrilla racemiflora), and Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis). There are many other species that offer similar value to wildlife. It is important to use native species and species that can be managed without the risk of taking over the pond.

Many species of aquatic plants provide valuable habitat components for wildlife and fish. Aquatic plants can be used to create structure, provide haven for juvenile fish, provide shady ambush areas for predatory fish, create sunning areas for amphibians, provide food resources for waterfowl, etc. Not all plants provide similar value to wildlife. It is important to identify which aquatic plants are present in the pond and determine their wildlife value. Undesirable species can be managed with chemical, biological, or manual removal. Species with little wildlife value can be replaced with more beneficial species. Species that benefit wildlife and fisheries in a pond include: Rush (Juncus species), Bulrush (Scirpus species), Watershield (Brasenia schreberi), Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata), Smartweed (Polygonum species), Water lily (Nymphaea odorata), Spatterdock (Nuphar lutea), and numerous other native aquatic species. Aquatic plants often require management to limit their occurrence to desirable areas.  The general rule of thumb is to maintain total aquatic vegetation to cover no more than 10-15% of the pond’s surface area.

Pond with different types of aquatic vegetation along the edge.
Many species of aquatic plants provide valuable habitat components for wildlife and fish. Image credit: Cory Heaton, Clemson University.

Living aquatic and wetland vegetation provide important habitat features. Dead vegetation can provide important habitat as well. Felling trees into the pond provides excellent structure/cover for your fish.  Surveying the trees around your pond’s perimeter will give you a better idea of which trees would be best for felling into the pond. Select trees that are not great mast producers, trees that may be declining in health, trees that may be a risk to structures or safety, etc. Just because these trees are not providing a great deal of value to wildlife on land, doesn’t mean they can’t provide abundant wildlife and fish value in the pond. We have observed extensive use of trees felled into ponds at Sandhill REC, by migrating waterfowl species. Ducks rely heavily on emergent limbs of fallen trees to provide loafing cover as they rest during migration. Heavily branched treetops exposed from the water surface act as a fence to deter avian predators and provide a break from heavy winds. You will also see the exposed portions of fallen trees frequently used by turtles, wading birds, and maybe an alligator.

Your pond may or may not be the ideal location for bird nest boxes. I commonly encounter wood duck nest boxes on ponds. Wood duck nest boxes should never be placed on ponds with bass, pickerel, or mudfish populations. Very few, if any, ducklings survive when reared in ponds with large predatory fish.  Wood duck boxes should only be placed in wetlands that do not support fish populations. It takes significant energy and time for wood ducks to lay and incubate a clutch. If the offspring are lost to fish, it can have negative impacts on the population. In many cases, wood duck boxes become a population sink rather than a source. Songbird nest boxes and owl boxes are valuable additions to the watershed feeding your pond. Purple Martin houses can be a great asset to your pond, and the noticeable difference in mosquitos provides more reason to add them.

Improving the value of your pond for wildlife can be a rewarding experience. A healthy pond system supports a diversity of wildlife, both flora and fauna. There should always be something in bloom for the eyes to enjoy. Species will change throughout the year, often with regularity as accurate as your calendar. Healthy ponds are beautiful, and you will find yourself spending more and more time there. 


W. Cory Heaton, Cooperative Extension, Forestry and Wildlife Specialist

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