NC State Extension Publications

Commonly Used Wildlife Terms

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Biological diversity - The variety of life forms in a given area. Diversity can be categorized in terms of the number of species, the variety in the types of plant and animal species, the genetic variability of the animals, or a combination of these elements.

Browse - Palatable twigs, shoots, leaves and buds of woody plants. The term often is used to describe a category of deer foods.

Carnivores - The category of animals that prey or feed upon animals and insects. (carni-, flesh; vore-, eater)

Carrying capacity - The maximum number of animals that a specific area can support without causing habitat degradation.

Community - A collective term used to describe an assemblage of plants and animals living together.

Conservation – the protection, improvement, and wise use of natural resources by humans for present and future generations (sustainable and multiple use). See preservation for contrast.


A description of the protection and seclusion afforded by a combination of vegetation and topography. Some types of cover are:

  • Brood cover - Low vegetation such as grasses or forbs that afford protection for ground nesters to raise their young.
  • Escape cover - Thickets, vine mats, hollow trees, rock crevices, blowdowns or burrows that are a means of concealment from predators or hunters.
  • Nesting cover - Vegetation that protects nesting sites: forbs, grasses, downed logs, shrubs, and trees for quail, grouse, many species of songbirds, and rabbits.
  • Roosting cover - Overnight cover such as coniferous stands for wild turkey, shrubs for quail, dense pine saplings for doves, beaver ponds for wood ducks, or snags with cavities for woodpeckers, songbirds, squirrels, and other cavity users.
  • Winter cover - Cover required for over-wintering, such as den trees for squirrels, raccoons and bear, or dense evergreen thickets for deer.

Daylighting - The cutting back of canopy and mid-story vegetation that borders logging roads. Exposing road surfaces to sunlight increases drying and prevents erosion, and "daylighting" promotes rapid regrowth of herbaceous plants and shrubs that provides cover for wildlife along the road.

Den tree (cavity tree) - A tree that contains a weather-tight cavity used for nesting or protection.

Dispersal – An animal’s abandonment of its home range, in search of habitat for a new home range. This can include leaving a natal site (where the animal was born) to move into a territory with less direct competition to live and reproduce.

Diversity - The distribution and abundance of different plant and animal species within a given area.

Domesticated – A species altered by humans via an evolutionary process with the goal of benefiting humans, though the animals often benefit as well.

Ecosystem – A dynamic complex of plants, animals, and other organisms, along with their non-living environment, interacting as a functional unit.

Ecosystem management - The concept of resource management that considers land, water, air, plants, and animals to be an entire system that should be managed as a whole. All of these elements are interrelated (including humans).

Ecotone - The transition zone between communities. For example, the transitional area between field and forest. Ecotones often are rich in species as they harbor species from adjoining communities and their predators.

Eco-tourism – A form of tourism where visitors travel to enjoy, study, and appreciate nature as a way to promote conservation and support the socio-economic status of local human communities.

Edge effect - Refers to the diversity and abundance of wildlife that are attracted to areas where two or more vegetative types or age classes meet. Edge effect often is a result of the stark contrast between adjacent landcover created by humans (e.g., cropland, closed canopy forest, and urban).

Endangered species - A species is endangered when the total number of remaining members may not be sufficient to produce enough offspring to ensure survival of the species.

Endemic species – A native species living within a restricted geographic area and not occurring anywhere else.

Exotic or Alien or Non-native species – A species that occurs in a given region or area as a result of direct or indirect, intentional or accidental, introduction by humans.

Extinct – A species becomes extinct when the last of its kind has died.

Feral – An animal of a domesticated species that now lives without any direct human supervision or control.

Flyway – An established air-route of migratory birds, such as ducks and other waterfowl.

Food chain – The sequence of plant and animal feeding interactions at different levels within a particular community. Energy is transferred from the lowest level to the highest level (e.g., plants are eaten by insects, which may be eaten by frogs, which may ultimately be consumed by birds).

Forage - All browse and herbaceous plant foods that are available to animals.

Forb - Any herbaceous plant other than grasses or grass-like plants.

Forest type - Groups of tree species commonly growing in the same stand because their environmental requirements are similar. North Carolina examples include oak-hickory, loblolly-shortleaf pine, oak-pine, and oak-gum-cypress.

Game – Game species include any wild birds, fish, and mammals that are legally hunted or trapped by humans for food or sport.

Habitat - An area that provides a species of animal or plant with adequate food, water, cover, and living space. Without reference to a specific species, the term habitat is somewhat meaningless because each plant or animal species has unique habitat requirements.

Herbivore - The category of animals that feed on plants. (herbi-, plant; -vore, eater)

Home range - The area used by an animal to acquire the food, cover, and water it needs to survive and reproduce.

Inclusion - Small areas within a stand which have an inherently different composition and structure (and possibly management history) than the stand in which they occur. They can be treated differently than the remainder of the stand.

Insectivore – The category of animals that feed on insects.

Invasive species – Plants or animals that are not native to an area and which establish themselves and overcome or outcompete pre-existing native species.

Keystone species – A species that plays a critical role in the stability and integrity of its ecological community.

Legumes - Plants that capture organic nitrogen from the air. These plants, which typically form seeds in pods, include soybeans, peas, alfalfa, lespedeza, and locust.


Fruits or nuts used as a food source by wildlife.

  • Hard mast is the fruit or nuts of trees such as oaks, beech, walnut, chinquapin, and hickories.
  • Soft mast includes the fruits and berries of dogwood, viburnums, elderberry, huckleberry, spicebush, grape, raspberry, and blackberry.

Migration – Movement of animals to and from feeding or reproductive areas, often on an annual or seasonal basis.

Native species – Any species of plant or animal that occurs naturally in an area, not introduced by humans.

Neotropical migrants - The category of migratory birds that spend the winter in Central and South America and return to North America to breed.

Nest box / structure - An artificial box, platform, or other structure that enhances the reproductive cover for desirable species.

Non-game species – Wildlife species that are not subject to legal hunting, fishing, or harvesting.

Omnivore - The category of animals that feed on both plants and animals. (omni-, all; - vore, eater)

Plant diversity - A variety of plant species provides a variety of food or cover for wildlife. Variation may occur at one point in time or over a period of time such as during the course of a season. Seasonal diversity of food and cover is often critical to the survival of a species.

Poaching – The illegal hunting, shooting, trapping, or taking of a plant or animal from public or private property.

Predator – An animal that lives by preying on (consuming) other animals.

Preservation – Protection of a natural resource or natural area by severely limiting or eliminating human influence. See conservation for contrast.

Prescribed burning - The controlled application of fire to wildland fuels to attain planned resource management objectives (brush control, wildfire hazard reduction, wildlife habitat improvements, etc.).

Prescribed burning cycle (return interval) - The time between prescribed burns. This frequency, along with intensity, largely determines the response of the plant community to fire.

Prey – An animal hunted for food by a carnivorous animal.

Range – The geographic area in which a species occurs.

Restoration - Returning a resource, ecosystem, or plant community to its original structure and composition of species.

Species – A group of living organisms consisting of similar individuals capable of interbreeding.

Stand – A group of trees that are approximately the same in species composition, age class, and condition, often managed as a unit.

Stewardship management (total resource management) - The practice of managing all the natural resources as a whole. Using and enjoying the natural resources with responsibility and care for the future.

Streamside management zone (SMZ) - Buffer strips, filter strips, or riparian zones adjacent to water bodies. Width varies depending on a variety of factors, but must be sufficient to effectively prevent sedimentation and meet regulatory requirements.

Succession - The change in species composition and community structure over time, as in the development of a plant community from field to mature forest. Early successional plant communities are characterized by forbs, grasses and some shrubs and late successional plant communities are characterized by shade-tolerant tree species.

Successional disking or mowing - Mechanical methods of maintaining or promoting the regrowth of non-woody plants. Periodic disking shifts plant composition to annual forbs and grasses. Mowing maintains a perennial community of herbaceous plants and woody sprouts, but may promote a build-up of thatch that restricts access by some wildlife species.

Territory – Part of all of the home range that is defended by an individual, breeding pair, or social group for breeding, courtship, feeding, or other reasons.

Threatened species – A threatened species exhibits declining or dangerously low populations but may still have enough members to maintain or increase numbers. Threatened species are vulnerable to becoming endangered in the near future.

Total resource management - See Stewardship management.

Understory - The underlying layer of vegetation beneath the tree canopy and mid-story, including grasses, forbs, and shrubs.

Wildlife - A broad term that includes non-domesticated animals but not exclusively mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. Some definitions may include fish and invertebrates.

Wildlife openings - Openings maintained to provide food or cover for wildlife, often with the intent of attracting game species and improving hunter success. The openings may contain native vegetation or planted crops and can be maintained by burning, disking, mowing, planting, and fertilizing.


Wildlife biologist
Extension Professor
Forestry & Environmental Resources
Professor (Wildlife)
Forestry & Environmental Resources

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Publication date: March 19, 2019
Revised: Jan. 19, 2024

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N.C. Cooperative Extension prohibits discrimination and harassment regardless of age, color, disability, family and marital status, gender identity, national origin, political beliefs, race, religion, sex (including pregnancy), sexual orientation and veteran status.