How to Feather Field Edges for Deer Attraction and Habitat Improvement

March 27, 2024 By: Cheyne Matzenbacher

This article is about feathering edges to improve deer habitat, not feathering hair. I remember the feathered hairstyle fad back in the 80s, but I don’t think feathered edges are a fad because this is such a great practice to implement for wildlife, especially deer. 

In deer habitat management, an edge is the junction of two different cover types, where two different plant communities meet, or where the structure or age of a cover type changes. Deer have been called “creatures of the edge,” which is why it is a good idea to shed a little light on maintaining habitat edges.

What Is Edge Feathering?

Edge feathering refers to the “softening” of an edge by removing trees to create a merging of two plant communities in a stairstep transition zone. Instead of having an open agricultural field, pasture, food plot, or old field abruptly meeting a hard “wall” of timber, feathering the edge creates a more gradual “brushy” transition zone between two cover types.  

edge feathering
This diagram shows a “soft” edge that transitions gradually from a mature forest (bottom) to an open field (top), with a zone of shrubs, forbs and grasses in the middle. From “Manging Your Woods for White-tailed Deer” by Purdue University Extension.

What Does Edge Feathering Accomplish?

I had the opportunity to pick the brain of Matt Dye, wildlife biologist and co-owner of Land & Legacy, and asked him all about edge feathering. Matt and his Land & Legacy partner Adam Keith are big promoters of this habitat management practice. I asked Matt what edge feathering accomplishes.

 “The super easy, quick answer? Cover,” Matt said. “It creates an immense amount of structure like fawning structure and bedding structure. Downed tree structures on the ground promote cover for rabbits, songbirds, wild turkey, or even bobwhite quail. It also produces a lot of food for those same species depending on what vegetation does come back, but based on the sunlight that area is going to receive and partial shade, you’re going to get back deer food.” 

edge feathering
Adam Keith and Matt Dye of Land & Legacy explain “edge feathering” at an NDA Deer Steward course in Missouri. The shrub zone behind them is a feathered edge separating a field and woods.

Edge feathering removes trees from the edge of a field to eliminate the shade produced by those trees to allow more sunlight to hit whatever is growing in the field, thus increasing the yield. It can provide escape cover and thermal cover for many different species of wildlife as well as creating a higher diversity of plant species along the edge.

“Edge feathering can also give a hunter the ability to access their treestand or blind better by not being seen getting in and out from inside the timber,” said Matt. “It is just as much as a visual blocker as it is food and cover from a hunter’s standpoint.” 

Matt said edge feathering could even allow a hunter to call more effectively by creating a visual block for bucks, so they have to go out into the field to see where the call is coming from. Combined with a decoy, this could present a hunter with a better shot opportunity.

Equipment to Feather Edges

There are a few things you are going to need so you can get started feathering your habitat edges.

  1. A way to fell or kill trees. This could be a chainsaw, it could be Craig Harper’s Cocktail for girdle-n-spray, it could even be larger equipment like a tractor or skid steer with forks or grapple. The main part of edge feathering is dropping some trees. 
  2. Another helpful tool to have when you are felling or hinge-cutting trees to push/pull them over is a habitat hook. This simple tool makes it much safer for everyone involved so the trees can be steered in the direction you want them to go. 
  3. Herbicides and Sprayer. You will need herbicide to kill invasive and non-native species along the edge, to paint on the stumps of the trees you don’t want to grow back in the edge, and to kill non-native grasses before you start felling trees along the edge. 
  4. Prescribed Fire equipment. After a few years, prescribed fire can be used to limit too much woody plant regrowth and maintain the edge.
A chainsaw for dropping trees plus a squirt bottle of herbicide for killing invasive trees will take care of most edge-feathering jobs. Photo courtesy of Identical Draw.

How to Feather Edges

Now you know the equipment needed and why you should feather edges. How exactly do you go about feathering edges? The first step is to remove any invasive or non-native tree species growing along the edge. This can be done with a chainsaw and herbicide, either by felling and spraying the stump or by girdle-and-spray to kill the trees standing. Most invasive tree species will grow back from the stump if you don’t use herbicide. Besides the invasive and non-native tree species, you should also kill any non-native grasses in a field edge before you move on to the next step.

Now, drop some trees. This can be a mixture of flush cutting, hinge cutting, or even girdle-n-spray. Which trees should you drop? It depends. If you have any fruit-bearing trees along the edge, you should probably leave those alone. If you have any other great mast producing trees, leave those too. You should definitely save the shrubs, but everything else is fair game to drop. 

There are a few trees that can also create some more deer food when you cut them and allow them to resprout (mineral stumps), so it would be a good idea to identify those trees and start there. A few examples include elm, hackberry, dogwood, redbud, red maple, and black gum. The next trees you should focus on dropping with the chainsaw are the undesirable species like sweet gum or really any species that could take over and dominate the stand. It would be a good idea to treat these stumps with herbicide to try and prevent them from coming back. 

edge feathering

How many trees should you drop or how far back into the timber should you go? Again, it depends. There’s not really a set number of trees to try and take down. Generally speaking, though, you should drop trees back about 15 to 20 yards off the edge to get that pronounced softening or blending between the open field and closed canopy environment. 

It really depends on the quality and diameter of the trees on the edge and the number of trees that are already present along the edge. In some areas, it could be two trees to drop but it could be 100 trees for others. It just depends on what’s there. 

Keep in mind, the deeper into the edge you go, the more likely you are going to encourage deer to bed in that edge, especially if the bedding is poor elsewhere. It might not be the best idea based on a treestand access standpoint, if that’s the route you have to take to get into/out of your stand/blind. So, sometimes a wider or deeper edge is not as desirable. 

Open vs. Closed Edges

There are two main types of edge feathering that Land & Legacy talks about – open and closed – and each type has its own uses and goals.

“Open” edge feathering is the most common type where the felled trees are dropped perpendicular to the field edge. This allows wildlife to freely come and go from the open area as they please while making them feel safe and protected with the added cover. Open edge feathering creates that nice stair-step transition zone in the vegetation types. 

Closed edge feathering is where the felled trees are dropped parallel to the field edge. This creates a barrier or boundary along the edge. Some trees could be hinge cut and pushed parallel to the edge to create a “growing” or “living fence.” It is a way to keep critters out of certain crop fields or food plots or block them from going places you don’t want them to be. 

If you leave openings in your closed edge, this will steer or funnel everything through that opening. These openings could help a hunter by allowing them to know where the deer are entering a field. With a properly placed trail-camera on that pinch point opening, a hunter could even figure out when the deer are coming through on most occasions. This could be a major strategic stand/blind site and could allow the hunter to be able to plan the most non-intrusive entry/exit point to their stand/blind as well. 

Both edge feathering types have their pros and cons, so a combination of these two types of edge feathering is recommended to give you all the benefits of both on your property.  

Get to Feathering

Edge feathering can be another amazing tool in your habitat management toolbox. When done safely and correctly, it can provide many different species of wildlife, especially deer, with some much-needed food and cover. It can increase plant diversity and even increase the crop yield in areas where implemented. 

From a hunter’s standpoint, this can be the answer you’ve been looking for to help you with less intrusive entry and exit to your treestand or blind. It could even be the silver bullet you’ve been waiting on to create the perfect stand/blind setup to finally get in range of that mature buck you’ve been chasing! 

About Cheyne Matzenbacher:

Cheyne Matzenbacher is an NDA Deer Outreach Specialist in Missouri. A Missouri native and lifelong deer hunter, Cheyne works with private landowners to establish and support Wildlife Management Cooperatives in the southern half of the state.