Photo by: Conservancy Biologist Leif Johnson

Urban Ecology: Golf and Wildlife

By Kathy Worley | Conservancy Environmental Science Director

“Golfers and environmentalists share a common love of the outdoors. Through collaboration they can share a common goal of improving both golf and the environment.”
-Paul Parker, Center for Resource Management

The Conservancy of Southwest Florida has recently completed a study on how wildlife can utilize golf courses and ways to enhance their presence without interfering with the game; in other words — a little bit of Urban Ecology. There are very few areas, other than parks, that can provide resources for wildlife to flourish in the urban area. Golf courses can, if designed with both the golfer and nature in mind, provide valuable habitat for wildlife.

Photo by: Conservancy Biologist Leif Johnson

The ecological function of golf courses is often overlooked because of a misperception that golf courses have little value. Ponds, wetlands, and waterways are prevalent on golf courses and are used to create hazards and accommodate for stormwater, but these features also provide resources for wildlife.

Think about this — if you have an 18 hole course you need about 140 to 180 acres of usable land and as of 2015 there were about 15,372 golf courses in the U.S. [1] That’s roughly 4,323 square miles of land needed for those golf courses. Looking at it another way that is 2,766,960 acres.

Non-playing areas usually make up around 25% to 40% of the available land; while water features and wetlands account for 7% of the total acreage on an average 18-hole course in the U.S. This is a lot of area that can be available to wildlife.

General Rules of Thumb for the Conservation Golfer:

Habitat: It’s all about the habitat, since what type(s) and the density of habitat present will determine what types of wildlife you will find there.

Resource Availability: We are all a slave to our stomachs. Food and shelter are major drivers in where wildlife can be found.

Biodiversity: Generally speaking, the higher the number and variety of species that are present, the more diverse and healthier the system.

Vegetative Water Features: Ponds with littoral zones (shallow areas along the bank) that support aquatic vegetation, provide resources for aquatic invertebrates and small fish on the lower levels of the food chain, which in turn attract other species higher in the food change like birds, larger fish and mammals.

Trees and Shrubs: Golf courses that have swaths of forest and other shrubbery can attract many different species and birds for golfers to enjoy watching while making the rounds.

So how can you make your course better for nature? With just some tweaking here and there, the next time you make changes to your course or address erosion issues in your ponds — you could incorporate some or even all of these recommendations to lend nature a helping hand without interfering with the game.

  • Consider habitat diversity. Trees can provide borders between holes for the perching birds to utilize, while at the same time creating a great experience for golfers — by creating the illusion that each hole is isolated from the next. Try to keep large older specimen trees that provide shaded areas for wildlife and golfers alike.
  • The more vegetated the course the more attractive it is to wildlife, so if trees are not appropriate, use different types of native shrubs and groundcover in the out of play areas between holes or even as an obstacle the golfer has to overcome, much like a sand trap.
  • Golf course ponds typically have steeper grades and greater depths than natural water features. Incorporating shallower sloping banks and mimicking the seasonal fluctuation in water levels can improve the ecological function of these ponds.
  • Creating or augmenting a vegetative buffer between the pond and the rough would provide high-quality habitat for animals, as well as adding to the aesthetic of the water feature, while helping to maintain better water quality. Use native grasses, small shrubs, groundcover and wildflowers.
  • The scrub and forested areas within your golf course are great refuges for wildlife. By combining existing forested sections with out-of-play areas on the course you can create small corridors which allow for greater movement of wildlife throughout the area. This provides more shelter for animals, and helps to bolster the prey base necessary to sustain a functioning ecosystem.
  • Wading birds are large beautiful birds that can be easily seen and admired by golfers as they walk the course. When reconfiguring or performing maintenance on the ponds, consider designing them to accommodate different foraging strategies to attract different species of diving and wading birds.

Pond Strategies

  • The deep areas of the pond attract the divers, like anhingas, cormorants and ducks, and birds of prey like eagles and ospreys that dive for larger fish.
  • Plant the bank of the pond with areas of both dense and sparse aquatic vegetation. Secretive birds like green herons like to hide in dense vegetation along the edge of a pond, whereas sparse vegetation along banks attracts birds like egrets that stalk or lie in wait for prey.
  • Create different depths or shelves within the pond to accommodate birds with different leg lengths. Longer-legged great egrets for example can forage in both shallow and deep water, whereas shorter-legged snowy egrets are restricted to foraging at the water’s edge, hence the need for a gradual or stair stepped slope.
Photo by: Conservancy Biologist Leif Johnson

These are just a few steps that can be taken in order to better manage a golf course to attract wildlife. The key is to maximize the diversity and abundance of wildlife by increasing the available space for them without impeding, but rather enhancing the golfing experience.

[1] Royal and Ancient, 2015.

Photo by: Conservancy Biologist Leif Johnson