Beyond the Food Patch:
A Guide to Providing Bobwhite Quail Habitat
Welcome to the world of quail habitat terminology - the jargon of juxtaposition, discing and diversity, edge and interspersion, fallow and forbs. To some, these and other terms may be unfamiliar or may carry different meanings. The first step towards providing quail habitat needs to be a clear understanding of words and phrases commonly used in quail management.
Classes of plants are sometimes confusing. Herbaceous plants (herbs) are the nonwoody species. They include grasses and forbs, forbs being all nonwoody broad-leaved plants. Most annual and perennial plants commonly called weeds are forbs. Determined by the timing of their most active growth, grasses are termed warm-season or cool-season. Warm-season grasses of interest to quail managers in Virginia include switchgrass, big and little bluestem, indiangrass, Eastern gammagrass, coastal panicgrass and broomsedge. These are also defined as bunch grasses due to their form of growth. Bunch grasses are best suited to meet the needs of quail. Cool-season grasses include fescue, orchardgrass and timothy. Orchardgrass and timothy are also bunch grasses. Woody plants, or nonherbaceous, refer to trees, shrubs, and vines. Legumes, special in their relationship to quail, are plants that produce a pea or bean-type seed, and enrich the soil with nitrogen. Examples of legumes important to quail are the lespedezas, clovers, beggarweeds and partridge peas.
Of the major land-use types, cropland and grassland (usually hay or pasture) are generally understood. Timberland, because of its various age classes and the varying usage by quail, is often referred to by its stage of growth: seedling, sapling, pole, or sawtimber. Clearcut, or sometimes cutover, is used to describe timberland that has recently undergone a complete harvest. A fourth type of land-use, one of extreme importance to quail, is idle land in the early to mid-stages of natural regeneration. Such land is usually identified by an array of naturally occurring plants, ranging from annual forbs to emerging woody vegetation; a stage termed early succession. Early succession is initiated by a major disturbance of existing vegetation, usually by working the soil, burning or harvesting timber. Maintaining natural vegetation in the early successional stage is the essence of quail habitat management.
Because of differing characteristics, three categories - fallow, old field and brushy - of early successional vegetation are recognized. The categories are distinguished by their vegetative composition, or vegetative age rather than numerical age. Fallow, a term used frequently to describe brooding and feeding cover, is land on which the soil has been recently worked, perhaps cropped, and is left unattended. Its major plant species are native annual weeds (forbs). Because of recent soil disturbance, fallow land is usually well "open" at the ground. This stage will generally persist for about three years following soil disturbance. Left abandoned, the fallow stage will progress to the more advanced old field stage. Old fields can also originate with the abandonment of pasture or hay land. Old fields contain a greater variety of plant types than usually found in the fallow stage, the most prominent being: grasses, perennial weeds, scattered small trees, brambles and vines. Within the year, quail will occupy areas having old field characteristics more frequently, and for more uses, than any other single vegetative stage. Old fields, like "old" men or "old" dogs, are even more difficult than fallow areas to define in years. Old field conditions may exist for five, ten, fifteen years, depending on the point at which incoming woody vegetation begins to dominate. When this occurs, the stage is then considered brushy or brush land.
Four general concepts, or principles, that must be applied in quail management are as intertwined as honeysuckle in a hedgerow. They are edge, diversity, interspersion and juxtaposition. Edge is any linear point of transition where different land uses, plant communities or vegetative stages come together. Edge can be as obvious as the abrupt change from cropland to old growth timber, or as subtle as the change from one plant community to another in an abandoned field. When the transition is gradual and the components merge, this is called "soft edge." An abrupt change between components is termed "hard edge." Soft edge is more desirable. Edge also increases diversity, a measure of variety in the habitat. Diversity can apply to a wide range of habitat components, including cover types, food items, plant species or plant communities. Interspersion is the pattern in which various habitat features are arranged. For wildlife of generally low-mobility, such as quail, good interspersion implies a close arrangement of these features. Juxtaposition takes interspersion a step further, indicating that habitat types are not just closely arranged, but are side by side. Juxaposition of habitat types allows quail simultaneous access to several of their needs.
And, finally, a term that seems simple enough but needs defining in quail terms is bare ground. The definition of this term depends on the context in which it is used. Literally, of course, bare ground is that from which all vegetation has been removed, such as a site prepared for planting. Frequently, in quail management, the term is also used to describe the existence of exposed soil beneath vegetative cover, meaning the surface will have little or no accumulation of dead leaves and stems (litter). Often the vegetation must be parted and the ground examined closely to determine if there is bare ground present.
All photos, unless otherwise credited, are by Dwight Dyke, Blackhawk Productions©. The quail sketches have been produced by Spike Knuth over the years for various Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries quail publications. We are indebted to these men for sharing their skills with the readers.