Beyond the Food Patch:
A Guide to Providing Bobwhite Quail Habitat
Managing Bobwhites on Production Lands
Only brief attention has been given to the implementation of habitat practices on lands under production. There are, however, many occasions when quail management can be satisfactorily applied to agriculture or timber production acreage. Quail habitat improvements on these lands need to be realistic and practices selected or modified for their compatibility with existing land use. Numerous wildlife incentive programs are offered by state and federal agencies to qualifying landowners (Appendix B). Various programs provide rental payments for acreage set aside and/or cost-share assistance for implementation of approved wildlife practices on agriculture and timber production lands.
Row crops and small grain
To improve fields in row crops or small grain for quail, no practice is better than establishing field borders. As discussed in the techniques section for establishing borders, these can be provided with a minimum or even no acreage (cutback borders) taken from production. Also, the placement of borders can be where crop yields are poorest—along woodland edges, or woody fence rows and drainages. These areas often produce low yields at a net loss to the farmer. Borders also provide readily available protective cover, required if quail are to glean harvested fields. Crop field borders can be attractive to quail for nesting or brooding as well. Pesticide application should be reduced or eliminated from the first 50 feet of the field edge.
Most row crops, with the exception of cotton and tobacco, can provide suitable conditions for brooding. Those planted no-till and having some weeds are particularly attractive. Of various seeding techniques considered in a North Carolina study, the greatest nesting and brood use occurred in late-season soybeans or double-cropped soybeans.
Installing sod waterways and filter strips is another management opportunity that can increase the quail's use of crop fields. The North Carolina report concludes that grain farm management should incorporate both borders and filter strips to the greatest extent possible. These should be planted in a quail-friendly bunch grass/legume mixture for nesting or brood cover.
Crop stubble should be left on the field for as long as possible following harvest. Fall plowing should be avoided. Fields left unplowed over winter will be less prone to erosion and provide quail with cover and food. Quail will routinely appear for a meal of spilled corn, soybeans or sorghum for as long as these remain available. Turning hogs or cattle into stubble fields will reduce the amount of grain available to quail. Even more damaging, is the destruction of cover that occurs when cattle feed on the vegetation, especially honeysuckle, growing along field edges.
As with grain fields, any of the various techniques described for "Field Borders" can be applied to hay fields. Hay fields containing bunch grasses and forbs, particularly legumes, are often well suited for nesting. Simply leaving an unmowed edge at least 30 feet wide can provide the border needed for this activity. This can be of particular value to birds that have had nests destroyed when the balance of the field has been mowed, giving them a ready opportunity to renest. Unmowed edges can be left permanently idle, or to keep from losing them to woody growth, hay half of the edge alternately each year. Rock or tree outcroppings within hay fields can be left with an unmowed fringe.
Conversion of tall fescue to NWSG will enhance nesting conditions and will produce a larger quantity of high quality hay. Replacing fescue with orchardgrass or timothy is also beneficial to quail. An advantage of native warm season grass is that haying occurs more than a month later than cool season hay, offering a chance for first nests to be successful before cutting commences.
Pastureland can also be managed in a fashion that will help quail. However, the type of forage growing and the extent to which it is grazed will profoundly effect its usage. Unimproved pasture (a rarity these days), moderately grazed, can be attractive to bobwhites for many activities, including nesting. With improved pastures, the most satisfactory are those growing a mix of warm- or cool-season bunch grasses and legumes. The latter, preferably clover or annual lespedeza. If these fields are not too heavily grazed, they will be used by quail for feeding and roosting. For any nesting to occur in improved pasture, fencing must be used to create safe havens. Intensely or overgrazed pasture, regardless of its plant species, has virtually no value to quail.
Like hay fields, the conversion of at least some pasture from fescue to native warm season grasses can benefit both the livestock grower and quail. Having pastures of both cool- and warm-season grasses gives the opportunity to establish a rotational grazing system where each type of grass can be utilized to their greatest benefit. Additionally, properly managed, warm-season grass will not be grazed as closely as fescue or other cool-season grasses, but will remain in a 12-inch stubble throughout the fall and winter. In particular, this will result in excellent roosting cover.
For quail, timberland is a mixed blessing. Its value is determined primarily according to its age class, or stage. Of the various age classes, those in the seedling and sapling stages are of greatest benefit to quail. While in these stages the trees interfere little with the growth of grasses, forbs and vines. As the stages progress and trees become older and larger, their tops grow together to form a canopy (crown closure). With crown closure, low-growing plants are lost due to shading, and the value of timberland to quail quickly declines. It is well known that quail often fly to nearby woods when flushed and include hardwood and pine mast in their diet. But without sufficient cover at the ground, the use of most older classes of timberland will be limited and brief.
To benefit quail, any timber management must also consider ways to retain some herbaceous plants. Virtually any cutting of timber, from thinning to a complete harvest (clearcutting), will accomplish this.
Once pines have reached the pole stage, concentrate on keeping the canopy sufficiently open to admit sunlight to approximately 50 percent of the ground at midday. This will keep essential plants, now in the understory, from becoming totally lost. Thinning established stands of pine will provide an initial monetary return, improve the vigor of the remaining stand and enhance the stand's value to quail. The first thinning of loblolly pine can usually occur at 15-20 years of age. Initially thin to approximately 150 trees per acre (TPA) to leave a satisfactory residual stand for producing more valuable saw timber, and to sufficiently open the canopy to admit desired sunlight. In time, a second thinning should take the stand down to 100 TPA. Where quail are a primary consideration, reduce the stand to about 80 TPA during the second thinning. Prescribe burn a year or two after thinning, and repeat every three years. This will control hardwood growth, clean the ground surface and stimulate forbs and grasses.
Clear-cutting is sometimes seen as undesirable due to its appearance. However, this is currently the land management technique most responsible for the creation of new quail habitat in Virginia. In addition to releasing a new and diverse early successional plant community, fire is frequently used prior to replanting these areas. The value of this to quail has been discussed. On large tracts of timber, small clear-cuts of ten to twenty acres, cut at three- or four-year intervals are best for quail. Trees should not be cut or other vegetation removed within 50 feet of each side of any drainage. This streamside management zone will preserve water quality and provide the cover quail seek for escape.
If there is a deficiency in clear-cuts, it is usually an inadequate source of winter foods, although several species of the native lespedezas (bush clovers) and pokeweed are often found. To enhance winter feeding opportunity, broadcast annual lespedeza (Korean or Kobe) throughout the area. Concentrate the seeding on those places where the greatest amount of soil disturbance has occurred, usually on log landings, skid trails and haul roads. Areas where stumps have been removed and the soil can be worked with farm equipment are often suitable for other plantings. Disc and seed these with grain sorghum, small grain or partridge pea.
Planting new forests is often the option selected when taking open lands out of their present use. The popularity of this has grown with participation in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Where this is being planned, there are several measures that will provide great benefit to quail. Before tree planting, any dense vegetation should be killed with a herbicide and burned. This will reduce competition with the planted seedlings and provide far better ground conditions for quail. Trees should be planted in rows at least 12 feet apart to allow for discing between rows. Using a disc during the plantation's seedling and sapling stages, the plantation can then be maintained in early successional strips of native or planted herbaceous cover.
Twelve by eight-foot spacing produces a stocking rate of 450 trees per acre (TPA). This rate is generally acceptable for timber production, and should be applied to both new plantations and replanted clear-cuts. If you wish to give quail greater consideration, this planting rate can be reduced. Whenever planting, TPA and spacing arrangement determines how quickly crown closure will occur. For quail, the fewer TPA and the wider the spacing the better.
Clearly, timberlands will not usually be managed for their benefits to quail alone. The VDGIF booklet "Managing Pines for Profit and Wildlife" is a valuable publication for landowners seeking to produce timber, quail and other wildlife on the same acreage. Many of the wildlife benefits shown in this booklet, available free from Virginia DGIF and DOF offices, can also be applied to hardwood forests.
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.