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Forest Land Quail Habitat Management

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Small Game Committee

Not too long ago, the bobwhite quail was a common by-product of modern land use practices. However, increased industrialization, mechanization, reforestation and urban sprawl over the past 30 to 40 years have greatly impacted quail habitat and quail populations. As current land use practices continue to work against quail, landowners wishing to promote quail on their property must now consciously apply habitat management activities necessary to meet the bobwhite's needs.

Managing Hardwoods for Quail

Oak dominated forests are one of the most important habitat types because they directly influence population and ecological process. Many birds and mammals rely heavily on mast producing trees for reproduction and survival. In addition to mast, the overall structure of hardwood forests differ from other habitat types and play an important role in winter and nesting cover for many species of birds and mammals.

Oak dominance in hardwood stands is declining in most Virginia forest and in the South East in general. The primary reason for this decline is a dominance switch to more shade tolerant species like maple, beach, and poplar. Currently, shade tolerant species are about 35% more prevalent in the understory of hardwood forests than oak species. As oaks are removed from the overstory either by natural causes or silvicultural practices, they are more likely to be replaced by shade tolerant species. This type of change in the species composition of hardwood forest has the potential to significantly impact wildlife populations.

The following is a discussion on the different types of hardwood forest management and methods to increase oak regeneration and/or maximize nesting and winter cover for birds especially quail and mammals. Remember that habitat diversity is important and maintaining forest stands of different age classes is key.

Crop Tree Release:
Probably the most intense practice for hardwood management but often the most appealing is a crop tree release. A forester, wildlife professional, or the landowner selects trees that are important mast producers. Generally this is best accomplished by the landowner because he is more familiar with his property and which trees produce mast on a consistent basis. Competing trees and/or non-mast producing trees that are in close proximity to the selected trees are removed. Only trees that have branches touching the branches of the mast produces need to be removed. This "releases" the mast producing tree from competition and enables it to grow and produce more mast. This type of cut is best accomplished on a small scale either by the landowner himself or a small firewood or similar operation.

Timber Stand Improvement Thinning:
Similar to the crop tree release, a timber stand improvement (TSI) is used to reduce competition in a hardwood stand and release selected trees to grow larger and/or produce mast. The primary difference between the two cuts is that a TSI is generally on a larger commercial scale with the objective of producing trees with a higher economic value. Timber stand improvement thinning can be a great value to wildlife if done correctly. The landowner needs to work closely with the forester to ensure that his goals to preserve and encourage mast producing trees and to save den structures is understood and properly implemented.

When planning this type of cut the landowner may want to consider laying out logging roads and skid trails prior to the cut to prevent damage to trees that are to remain and/or to act as fire breaks for future management practices.

Clear-Cut:
A clear cut can be one of the most beneficial timber management practices for wildlife especially deer, turkey and quail. The value of a clear cut to wildlife is that it provides cover and forage in a fashion that is usable year around. A mature stand of hardwoods produces forage in the fall when acorn and other mast are available. Cover is not readily available in a mature stand of trees except in areas where trees have fallen or in dens. Within a year after a clear cut, early succession species begin to dominate the site and a variety of food and cover is available during most of the year. This type of early successional habitat is generally available in a clear cut for eight to ten years. Once the new trees reach a stage where they begin shading out herbaceous and other understory vegetation a landowner should consider creating a new clear cut or managing the existing cut via prescribed burn or herbicides to maintain early succession, herbaceous habitat.

The size and shape of a clear cut depends on a variety of factors including topography, economics, and wildlife. In general clear cuts should be irregular in shape, bordered on one or two sides by mature timber, and practically sized (10-30 acres). Many species including deer, turkey and quail like the edges of habitat. Creating an irregular border and surrounding the clear cut with different habitat types (i.e. mature timber, previous years cuts, agriculture) increases the amount of edge. In larger clear cuts landowners should consider leaving an island of mature trees (1/2 acre or so in size) in the interior of the clear cut to provide mast, structure and increase edge habitat.

Encouraging oak dominated regeneration in these areas is critical if hardwood management is the goal. If the forest was dominated by oak prior to the cut, a natural regeneration should occur from stump sprouts and seed. However, quicker growing species like maple sweat-gum and poplar can quickly dominate if close attention is not given to the site. Prescribed burning is the most effective method for increasing oak prevalence in a regenerating clear cut. Quicker growing species generally have thinner bark and put most of their energy into above ground growth. Oaks on the other hand are thicker barked and tend to put energy into root development during the first few years of life. For this reason, prescribed burns will shift species composition to favor various species of oak.

Shelterwood Cut:
As shelterwood cut is basically a clear cut that is accomplished through a series of two or possibly three cuts rather than just one cut. The concept is to remove a majority of the basal area to providing enough of an open canopy to encourage the regeneration of oak while leaving mature mast producing trees as shade and seed trees. The site is revisited in 15-20 years when the understory is well established and the remaining trees are removed thus creating the final stage of the "clear-cut". As with a clear cut, special care should be given to ensure that oak regeneration is accomplished. A site that is not opened enough may encourage shade tolerant species like maple. Similar to oak regeneration in clear cuts, prescribed fire may be necessary to shift species dominance in these areas.

When planning this type of cut it is important to consider the future goals for the site during the planning stage. Lay out the site so it is in close proximity to a variety of other habitat types and maximizes edge. Consider how the site will be managed for oak regeneration and plan for prescribed burns. Foresters or the landowner can lay out logging roads and skid trail prior to the cut to prevent damage to trees that are to remain and/or to act as fire breaks for future management practices.

Other Considerations:
Prescribed burning in and around forest management for hardwoods can be extremely beneficial for wildlife for several reasons. First, when burning is accomplished in a thinned oak stand where adequate sunlight reaches the forest floor understory vegetation increases by as much as six times after a burn. In clear cuts, prescribed burning sets back regeneration, replenishes nutrients in the ground and encourage forbs and other useful herbaceous vegetation. Finally, as discussed above, burning can help to shift the overall structure of regeneration to favor species of oak. Maintaining an oak dominated forest system is an important aspect of any hardwood management.

Regardless of the forest management practice utilized, logging roads, trails and decks can be managed to enhance wildlife habitat. Decks and roads can be planted with a wildlife friendly seed mixture like Korean or Kobe lespedeza to provide forage and brood rearing habitat as well as soil stabilization to minimize erosion. This type of planting can be as complicated is creating multiple food plots with various types of summer and winter forage, seed producers and insect rich legumes or as simple as broadcasting Korean lespedeza. After a hardwood thinning operation, a landowner may want to consider expanding portions of skid trails and roads to create areas where sunlight reaches the ground and encourage understory vegetation. Areas ¼ to ½ acres in size can be sufficient.

Managing Pines for Quail

Cutover timberland has recently become the backbone of quail habitat, and offers an opportunity for further enhancing quail habitat on your farm. While areas managed for hardwood production are generally only prime quail habitat for the first few years following harvest, pine stands can be managed for quail throughout much of their lifetime. The following is a brief outline of what you will find in the booklet.

  • Site Preparation - Site preparation is designed to reduce the amount of competing vegetation prior to establishing a new forest stand. Site preparation can be achieved through mechanical means (e.g., dozing, drum chopping), herbicide applications, or prescribed burning. The best method for site preparation depends upon timber harvesting practices, soil conditions, and surrounding land uses, and a professional forester should make selection of the appropriate site preparation technique(s). For purposes of wildlife habitat, site preparation by prescribed burning should be used when feasible.
  • Planting density - Planting density of a pine stand will also affect the future growth and value of the forest stand. Typically, loblolly pines are planted at a rate of 500 - 600 trees per acre to produce healthy forest stands and provide maximal economic benefits. If you desire to maintain optimal wildlife habitat, planting rates of 435 - 450 trees per acre are best. This lower density maintains excellent tree growth and allows sunlight to reach the forest floor for a few extra years, providing valuable wildlife food and cover over a longer period of time.
  • Release from Competition - Releasing pines from hardwood competition is needed to maintain good growth in pine stands. Without releasing the pines, competing vegetation will slow the growth rate of the pines, reducing economic benefits. Releasing is generally conducted a few years after planting, and varies depending on site conditions and tree growth. If you desire to maintain wildlife habitat as long as possible, delaying release until 4 - 5 years after planting will protect important wildlife species of grasses, forbs, and legumes until a time when they are naturally declining within the stand.
  • Pine Thinning - Pine stands should be thinned as early and as often as possible, generally 15-18 years after a stand is established. Working with a professional forester and tracking stand growth will help determine when thinnings should be conducted. Thinning pines maintains excellent tree growth and forest health. Thinning is also excellent for wildlife habitat enhancement as sunlight can penetrate the forest canopy and stimulate the growth of valuable wildlife food and cover in the forest understory. To maximize economic benefits, pine stands are thinned once or twice prior to final harvesting. During the first thinning, approximately 225 of the best trees are maintained in the stand. If a second thinning is conducted, approximately 100 - 125 of the best trees are allowed to remain until final harvest.
  • Stand Maintenance - Initiating a prescribed burning rotation within the understory of the thinned pine plantations can help reduce some forest competition and maintain excellent wildlife habitat. Burning should be conducted 1 - 2 years after thinning and occur on a 3-year rotation. Burning units should be 20 -30 acres in size. I would not recommend burning all units during a single year; rather burn about 1/3 of the units each year. Prescribed burning will provide many benefits to wildlife. It will keep vegetation at a height where it is most useful for wildlife. It improves the nutritional value and digestibility of the vegetation. It will help maintain herbaceous vegetation (i.e. grasses, forbs, and legumes), and it will provide for a diversity of food and cover types for wildlife.

Firebreaks

Firebreaks should be incorporated into any planned burning activity. A firebreak is a strip or gap of bare land, in vegetation or other combustible material, established or created that acts as a barrier to slow or stop the progress of wildfire and/or controlled prescribed burns. Firebreaks may be temporary or permanent and consist of fire-resistant vegetation, nonflammable materials, bare ground or natural geographic features such as rivers, rock outcrops, etc. Firebreaks should be located on the contour where practical, and stabilized in an appropriate manner where this is not possible, to minimize the risk of soil erosion. Firebreak construction must comply with applicable federal, state, and local laws and regulations, including the state's Best Management Practices (BMP's) which can be viewed at the Virginia Department of Forestry's web site.

Four types of firebreaks are adaptable to the various needs and conditions existing in Virginia. They are:

  1. Forest roads
  2. Plowed, disked, or bladed firebreaks
  3. Burned firebreaks
  4. Vegetated firebreaks

Forest Roads

Forest roads may be used in any forest type and on nearly all terrain conditions. Existing or newly constructed forest roads or trails can be effective firebreaks if properly maintained. Forest roads are important not only for use as a prescribed fire tool but also for wildfire suppression access, timber harvesting, wildlife management, recreation, education and other forest management activities. Well planned roads provide low-cost access and require minimal maintenance. The travel surface of roads should be at least 10 feet wide. The maximum permissible sustained grade should be 10 percent but ideally roads should be constructed on a 6 percent slope or less. Roads built with slopes of 6 percent or less have proven to be less costly to maintain than roads of even an 8 percent grade. Short, steep slopes should be avoided as well as wet areas, areas prone to erosion, areas that might require expensive stream crossing structures and environmentally sensitive areas. Proper drainage is essential to the stability of the road. Forest Roads should be out-sloped wherever terrain and soil type will permit. Out-sloping allows water to flow off of the surface more quickly thereby reducing the chance of costly erosion damage. Conversely, often times roads built on flat terrain can develop maintenance problems such as potholes, ruts or wet areas. On flat terrain, roads should be crowned so that water drains to both sides and is diverted from the roadbed. Culverts and/or surface drains may be used. Seed the constructed roadway with a wildlife friendly mixture of grasses and/or legumes after completing soil tests, applying the recommended amounts of lime & fertilizer and planting using common agricultural planting practices. Where economically feasible, the road bed should be mulched with straw (do not use hay due to the high probability of introducing unwanted fescue to the roadbed) to help retain soil moisture and minimize seed loss from foraging wildlife. This allows the road to be used as a linear wildlife opening as well. If the road is to be maintained as a wildlife opening, the road should be planned and constructed to allow for adequate amounts of sunlight and rainfall which are necessary for proper establishment and continued vigor of the planting choice. Daylighting, or the removal of road side vegetation, may be necessary to allow ample sunlight to reach the road bed for several hours each day, aid in surface drying and create a soft transition zone between the forest and the road. The road should be gated if the area is prone to a high volume of unauthorized use. The necessity of road closure depends on the amount, type and duration of vehicular traffic. Any unnecessary use of the road will contribute to road damage, planting damage and wildlife disturbance during critical activity periods such as nesting and brood rearing.

Plowed, Disked or Bladed Firebreaks

Plowed or disked firebreaks may be used in any forest type and on nearly all terrain conditions and should be located adjacent or parallel to high risk areas and forest property boundaries, and within the forest where necessary They should follow the approximate contour of the land wherever feasible to minimize erosion. The breaks should be the width of the disk, plow (3 to 5 feet), or blade (6 to 12 feet). These widths are usually sufficient to contain most creeping or slowly moving ground fires, but will not stop crown fires. Since this type of firebreak disturbs the soil and/or breaks the sod, temporary firebreaks should not be plowed until immediately prior to the burn and should be revegetated as quickly as possible upon completion of the burn to minimize erosion.

Burned Firebreaks

Burned Firebreaks consist of two parallel plowed or disked strips, each 5 feet wide, and a minimum of 20 feet apart. Logs, limbs, and other flammable materials should be removed from the area between the strips. The area between the strips is then burned creating the break. Reseeding of a burned firebreak is not necessary as the sod is still intact with only the layer of thatch having been removed however the strips surrounding the burned area should be revegetated as quickly as possible upon completion of the burn to minimize erosion.

Vegetated Firebreaks

Vegetated firebreaks protect the forest as well as provide convenient access to an area. Vegetated Firebreaks consist of cool season grass or grass legume strips at least 30 feet wide adjoining forest land and 50 feet wide within forests. The strips should be cleared by removing trees and under story growth. Breaks must be 50 feet wide within the forest to allow sufficient sun light for grass and legume plants to grow successfully and form sod. The land should be prepared and seeded following common agricultural planting practices.

Firebreaks Operations and Maintenance Plan

O&M will consist of maintaining the break in a condition that insures that the firebreak is capable of stopping or at least slowing ground fires. Apply fertilizer to maintain plant vigor, and protect break from unwanted grazing and vehicular traffic. Perform renovation activities, such as pest control, mowing, disking, debris removal and rejuvenation of the desired vegetation and timeliness of maintenance activities to minimize wildlife impacts.

  1. Temporary Disked/Plowed Firebreaks
    1. Create the firebreak by disking or plowing. Expose mineral soil with fire line plows, or farm plows and disks or blades depending upon the terrain and character of vegetation to be removed immediately prior to the burn. The break should be wide enough to stop a ground fire.
    2. Place on the contour as much as possible to control erosion.
    3. Immediately after the burn, reseed the disturbed soil.
  2. Permanent Firebreaks
    1. Forest Roads -- Existing or newly constructed forest roads or trails can be effective firebreaks if properly maintained.
      • Maintain the forest road to a minimum width of ten feet.
      • Remove woody debris from road surface.
      • Maintain erosion control measures, ditches, water breaks, and culverts in proper working order.
      • Mow roadway prior to the critical fire season.
    2. Burned Firebreaks
      • Burn as necessary to eliminate flammable material and insure proper functioning condition.
      • Schedule mowing, and other renovation activities to avoid the nesting season (April 15 through Aug 15).
    3. Vegetative Firebreaks
      • Fertilize and manage to maintain ground cover and proper mixture of grasses and legumes.
      • Mow vegetative breaks to avoid a build up of excess litter, weeds and woody vegetation.
      • Protect from grazing and vehicular traffic.
      • Schedule mowing, and other renovation activities to avoid the nesting season (April 15 through Aug 15).
      • Breaks will need periodic applications of lime, fertilizer and seed to maintain vigor if planted with a wildlife friendly mixture.
      • Annually inspect the break and remove woody debris, perform maintenance on drainage, water bars and erosion control measures.

Windbreaks

The use of windbreaks is not a common practice in the eastern United States but they can be successfully incorporated into a wildlife management plan anywhere in Virginia where soil loss occurs from above average wind conditions. Generally in Virginia this practice is more applicable in coastal and piedmont regions, primarily during droughts, but may also be implemented in the mountains. A windbreak is usually made up of one or more rows of trees or shrubs planted in such a manner as to provide barriers to reduce and redirect wind and protect soil from erosion. Other functions include protection of crops (especially where grains such as wheat are grown), livestock, buildings and wildlife from winds. Agricultural yields can be limited by factors such as soil erosion by wind, beaten-down crops and soil drying. Additional benefits include providing habitat wildlife and in some regions the trees can be harvested for wood products. They are commonly planted around the edges of fields on farms.

Wildlife habitats and biodiversity have been substantially altered, reduced and/or eliminated by the removal of native plant cover as a result of agricultural activities. As such, wildlife movement is now negatively affected by the absence of "corridors", which are critical to the movements of several wildlife species. Much like hedgerows these windbreaks can provide this missing habitat component by supplying escape/protective cover and travel corridors between woodlots for forest dwelling wildlife as well as providing valuable food resources for wildlife that inhabit brushy habitats (NBQ, songbirds, etc.). These areas also provide an environment for insectivorous birds which will aid in removal of unwanted insect pests in a manner that could substantially reduce the cost of applying insecticides. If the windbreak is constructed near a waterway, the landowner will get the additional benefits of reducing surface runoff and stabilizing stream banks.

Windbreaks can be developed in a manner similar to that which was discussed in the section on hedgerows. The main difference between the two practices is that the species being planted in the center of windbreaks are usually significantly taller than those of a hedgerow and are chosen based on the site specific needs of the barrier. With more diverse plant selections and management techniques, a windbreaks' wildlife habitat value can be improved. Native plants should be used where ever possible as they are adapted to the local growing conditions such as soil type, amount of rainfall and duration of sunlight. The design should incorporate coniferous and deciduous trees and shrubs along w/ perennial and annual herbaceous plants. In making your planting decisions, consideration should be given to using various species so that some plants flower and fruit early in the growing season along with others that will retain their fruit into late winter. Natural regeneration will fill in the gaps between the planted specimens and manual removal of unwanted invasive species can be accomplished though use of a chainsaw or recommended herbicides. Designing and constructing the windbreak with different layers of vegetation will allow numerous species of wildlife to use the same area. Each layer creates a niche in the habitat area. Five or more layers are optimal and include the canopy, understory, shrub layer, herbaceous layer and the floor. Arrange vegetation to provide the greatest width practical and transition smoothly into the adjoining land use. Incorporating clump plantings under a tree canopy or along side the outside edge improves horizontal structure. Minimize straight lines in the design if possible.

Contour Buffers

Contour buffers are strips of perennial vegetation planted on the contour and alternated with wider cultivated strips in crop fields. They are primarily planted to prevent soil erosion as well as run-off of pesticides and fertilizer. However, they can also provide some valuable habitat if planted in wildlife friendly vegetation. These buffers have traditionally been planted in non-native, cool season, sod forming grasses such as fescue, but by making a few changes the wildlife benefits can be greatly increased without losing any of the original intent of the buffers.

Planting native warm season grasses (such as Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Indiangrass, Switchgrass) and legumes (such as partridge pea, Korean lespedeza) will greatly increase the benefits to local wildlife while still providing effective erosion control. As a matter of fact, some studies have shown that the native warm season grasses (NWSG) actually do a better job of absorbing pesticides than fescue. A good design would be to plant the buffer in NWSG with a strip of legumes on the uphill edge. Remember to treat the legumes with the appropriate inoculant before planting.

To improve the wildlife appeal of the buffers, they should be a minimum of 30 feet wide. The maximum width between the buffer strips should not exceed 300 feet. Buffers should only be mowed every 2 to 3 years to increase the amount of cover available. Also, mowing should be done after the nesting season for local ground nesting birds, but early enough to allow some re-growth before frost. Detailed specifications for designing contour buffers can be found in the NRCS Conservation Practice Standards #332 "Contour Buffer Strips".

Riparian Buffer Strip Management for Quail

Riparian buffer strips are corridors of vegetation along waterways, streams, ditches, and rivers. In addition to wildlife habitat benefits, riparian buffer strips capture sediment and runoff that would otherwise end up downstream. Buffer strips can provide all basic components of wildlife habitat: food, water, cover, and space, depending on the types of the trees and plants contained in the strip.

In farmed areas, buffer strips may represent much of the available wildlife habitat. Because buffer strips are long and narrow they yield several exceptional wildlife benefits. One benefit is abundant edge. Edge is where two habitat types, such as agriculture fields and forest, meet. Many wildlife species benefit from edge because of the abundance of food and cover close together. When you consider that a quail hunter's favorite starting place is often the perimeter of a crop field it is easy to see why quail are referred to as an edge species.

Another equally important habitat value of riparian strips is that they serve as wildlife connectors or travel ways between separate habitats. Picture a ditch or stream flowing for hundreds of yards from a wood lot across farmed fields and then into a distant cutover edge. Wildlife moving from the wood lot to the cutover stand a better chance of survival when they travel through vegetation rather than across open fields.

Sediment captured by buffer strips, along with additional moisture, make riparian buffers productive sites for plants to grow. Often, beneficial vegetation not encountered elsewhere on a property grows in riparian buffer strips. Some riparian strips are periodically subject to huge amounts of water during peak rain events that can substantially alter the vegetation. From a quail's perspective high water episodes are not unlike a prescribed fire in a forest understory. The affected areas are quickly colonized by vegetation that originates from dormant seed stocks or from seeds washed into the area.

The importance of buffer strips is supported by the fact that considerable cost share money from federal agencies, state agencies, and non governmental agencies is available for their installation, modification, or enhancement. Programs include WHIP, EQIP and CREP.

The same grassy and shrubby vegetation used by quail managers for nest, brood, or winter cover can be used to develop riparian buffer strips. Combinations of deep rooted bunch grasses, shrubs, and trees make riparian buffer strips effective for reducing sediment and nutrients, and provide good quail habitat. When cost share programs are used to install buffer strips, dimensions, vegetation types, and planting directions are prescribed through the program.

In general, from a quail management perspective riparian buffer strips should be a minimum of 25' feet wide. Wider widths approaching 50' are desirable and only enhance habitat value. The strip should provide clumped bunch grasses, such as switch grass or big bluestem, with shrubby vegetation such as VA-70 or any other fruit-producing shrub. Shrubs are planted in rows closest to the water where their root systems and woody structure can help stabilize the erosive forces of water and the grasses are planted adjacent to the shrubs. As in other situations where grasses are used for quail management, combinations of species and the addition of flowering plants such as partridge pea enhance their value for quail. Typically both sides of a waterway are planted in a mirror like fashion.

As a general rule of thumb riparian strips are established, enhanced, and managed for quail utilizing established techniques such as those outlined in this document for field borders and native warm season grass establishment.