Marc Puckett, Virginia small game project co-leader and chair of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee, has turned over his Shell's Covert blog to guest blogger Justin Folks. Welcome, Justin!
Private Lands Wildlife Biologist
You don’t have to be made of money to create quail habitat. A little bit can go a long way for species like quail, and even a relatively large project doesn’t have to break the bank. Here are some tips on ways to help quail that won’t hurt your wallet.
PARK THE MOWER!
People blame hawks, foxes, cats, and coyotes for the decline of quail, but the mower has had perhaps the most detrimental impact of all. Simply put, quail need old field-type habitat (free of fescue or other sod grass) with bare ground, wildflowers and woody thickets scattered throughout to thrive. Mowing gives you about the exact opposite!
If you’re what we refer to as a “recreational mower” and you want quail, the first thing you should do is find another hobby. Think of all the money you spend on a mower, the fuel, maintenance and the amount of time you spend on that mower every year. By letting areas grow up (without fescue, of course), you can actually save money by creating quail habitat!
To keep the old field from becoming forest, you’ll need to mow it every 3-5 years. To ensure cover is standing at all times and to add diversity to the property, mow 1/3 of the fields once every year around March. By mowing in late winter/early spring, you leave cover standing all winter which is crucialfor bobwhite survival. Taking this approach, you’ve cut down on 2/3 of the fields you mow every year and you only have to mow it once!
Half of this field is disked every other year on rotation. Disking gives the quail bare ground to travel and forage on and promotes annual forbs like ragweed that offer excellent brooding cover. The other half has more grass for quail to nest in and offers some escape cover as well. Combine this with a soft edge around the perimeter, and you have a recipe for success. No wonder a pair of quail were seen here just prior to this photo being taken!
If erosion isn’t too much of a concern, consider using a tractor and disc as opposed to a mower. The disc promotes bare ground and broadleaf plants while still keeping trees out. Controlled burning is the ultimate quail habitat management tool, but disking is second best. If you're in Virginia and worried about what the neighbors might think if they see your fields grown up, call us and we’ll bring you some Quail Program Cooperator signs to let everyone know there is a method to your madness.They may scoff at first, but they’ll be jealous when you’re listening to male bobwhites calling in the spring and they’re not!
KILL FESCUE, THEN FALLOW
A common misconception among many of the landowners we speak to is that you have to plant something to bring quail back. This isn’t necessarily the case.
In many instances, there are a lot of great native “quail plants” in an old field that has a lot of fescue. Fescue is a cool season grass, meaning it actively grows in the fall and spring months. A systemic herbicide like glyphosate (active chemical in Roundup, Gly-4 and others) only kills what is actively growing, so by timing the herbicide application to when the fescue is actively growing and the native warm season plants are dormant, you can kill the bad stuff while leaving the good stuff.
To spray with glyphosate yourself (with the right equipment), you’re looking at a cost of around $10/acre (excluding fuel and equipment costs). Many farm cooperatives and other contractors may run you $30-$50/acre to have them spray it instead. Once the fescue is dead, let the field go fallow and allow the natives to dominate. Mow, disc or burn every 3-5 years, spot treat any fescue that might pop up, and that’s it!
FALLOW COVER CROPS
Field borders around crop fields provide enormous benefit to quail in just a small area. If you’re interested in quail and are already planting wheat, oats, rye, or barley for a fall/winter cover crop, leave strips of the cover crop at least 35 feet wide around the perimeter of your fields when you plant your commodity the following year. The cover crop will provide cover and seed for birds in the first year, and letting it go fallow will allow native plants to volunteer, which will be beneficial for quail for years to come. All you did was plant the cover crop that you would have planted anyway—Mother Nature did the rest.
Hinge cuts work best with smaller trees—say less than 6 inches in diameter. For larger trees, remove the entire tree for firewood but leave the tree top as your brush pile and substrate for birds to land and “plant” shrubs for you.
Woody thickets are more important to quail than what most folks realize. Twenty to 40% of an area should be composed of shrubby thickets to provide essential escape and thermal cover for bobwhites, but shrubs are expensive and can be difficult to establish. Why bother when songbirds provide this service for free?
If you leave areas undisturbed for long enough, shrubs and trees will ultimately emerge, but to jumpstart this process, drag a cut cedar or the top out of a tree harvested for firewood out into a field. This creates a little bit of cover immediately, but it provides more of a perch for songbirds to land on and deposit shrub seeds.
Don’t mow or disc within 50 feet of the tree, and watch as blackberries, sumac, dogwoods, and other shrubs emerge on their own. You may also create a cheap perch by running some wire between two posts. Shrub thickets should be no more than 150-300 feet apart.
This windrow of logging slash exemplifies what can happen if you leave a tree top in a field. This is only a few years old, but blackberry and pokeberry have taken it over. Outstanding quail cover… for free
If there is a standing tree in the field you want to remove eventually, try hinge-cutting the tree to get the same effect. A hinge cut is cutting through one side of a tree just far enough to where it will fall but it will remain attached to the stump. The tree will act as a living brush pile for a year or two until it dies, but by then, birds will have landed in the branches and deposited shrub seeds for you. You may then cut the tree up for firewood and your shrub thicket has been started. Hinge cutting is another great way to “soften” field edges where hayfields meet mature forest.
These are just a few ways in which you can help create habitat for bobwhite quail, rabbits, songbirds, and other wildlife without forking out a lot of cash. Of course, planting a native seed mixture is always an option, but it may be worth it to see what comes up out of the seed bank before you plant. You’d be amazed at what may emerge, and we often see plants that money can’t buy.
Biologist Justin with dog Shelby in quail habitat
About the Author
Justin grew up in the city of Staunton, VA and got his undergraduate degree in Biology and Environmental Science at Bridgewater College in VA. After a year of non-wildlife-related work, Justin worked as the Chronic Wasting Disease Technician with the VA Department of Game and Inland Fisheries before going back to school. He received his Master’s degree in Range and Wildlife Management in 2012 after researching white-tailed deer foraging behavior at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Kingsville. After graduating, Justin became one of Virginia’s five Private Lands Wildlife Biologists working on Virginia's Quail Recovery Initiative, where he currently enjoys working with landowners interested in creating early successional wildlife habitat. Justin currently lives in Staunton, VA with his wife Dana, his 6 month-old son Barrett, and his bird dog Shelby.