Quail Food Patches Re-examined

I am broaching the subject of food patches recognizing the risk that I might inadvertently offend some of you. That is not my intent. The term “food patch” means different things to different people across the country. This post is to specifically address “food plantings” for bobwhite quail in the east. Very good books have been written by expert scientists on how food plots can be incorporated into an overall habitat management program. One of the best is by Dr. Craig Harper, A Guide to Wildlife Food Plots and Early-Successional Plants. I refer to it often, quote it sometimes, and try to never plagiarize it! My short treatment of the subject for quail today recognizes that people like to plant things for wildlife, and with some guidance it can be a good and useful technique.

I use the term “food plantings” instead of food patches because in my mind, a “patch” implies a small area that stands alone somewhere in an obscure corner of a property. A few decades ago, food patches were the basis for some conservation organization’s quail recovery efforts. They have come a long way since then, and more diverse, native annual and perennial mixes are being used. That said, I still see and hear landowners refer to food patches when they ask me what to do for quail. “I cleaned up the old field; now what do I need to plant for quail in my food patches?” is still a common question, though not nearly as common as it was 25 years ago.

I have also heard it said that food is rarely a limiting factor for quail. In many cases this is true. And it may seem to folks out walking around a cut-over or along a fallow crop field edge that quail food is abundant. After all, we know all weeds produce some kind of seed. But they are not always seeds that make good quail food. And I increasingly encounter places that have good cover but very little food, and not widely scattered food at that, making it difficult for foraging quail to feed on quickly. The right “weeds” are needed and in good concentrations. Things like ragweed (30% of a quail’s diet in November, 20% in December, and 10% in January), pokeweed, partridge pea, wild senna, goat’s rue, slender, hairy, roundhead, and trailing lespedeza (all native), beggar weeds (desmodiums), woodland sunflower, and many more. But sometimes what you see is dog fennel, horseweed, spotted knapweed, or others with low food value, and sometimes non-native invasive plants. It might take quite a bit of time and proper management to bring back the native plant diversity once present on a heavily farmed or timbered tract. Keep in mind some agricultural acres have been under herbicide-tolerant crops for going on three decades, and many timber stands are into the second or third rotation of chemical site preparation competition control. Native plants do come back, but not overnight.

If you envision annual food plantings consisting of millets, milo, sunflowers, buckwheat, trailing soybeans—what some used to call “annual gamebird mix” woven throughout a quail management property in long, linear strips next to good escape cover—you might see where food plantings have a role to play. And if you see these plantings in some ways as nothing more than rotational disking followed by some enhancement plantings to provide food for a few years until the native weeds begin to produce well again, you are beginning to understand how food plantings can still play a role in quail management.

Further, there is no need to apply herbicides over these plantings unless you have a non-native invasive plant that comes up in them and needs to be controlled. The idea is to have a planted area that enhances seed and insect production and also has a good mix of native weeds in it. So, think “weedy food and bugging area,” not agricultural crop. And rotate the strips—meaning plant a strip (a couple of disk widths minimum) this year, next spring leave this strip fallow and plant one next to it. This gives you two stages of young weedy growth: one enhanced with food plantings, one just weeds and crop stubble. Then rotate these strips back and forth through time. Note that these long linear strips ideally will be fire lines, and prescribed burning will be used frequently, which over time will eliminate the need for annual plantings by helping bring back the native plant diversity.

Fire lines provide an opportunity to plant inexpensive annuals like millet or buckwheat to enhance quail foraging areas.

You may be thinking “Why not just go ahead and plant a diverse native wildflower and legume mix and not bother with annual plantings?” Mainly because it is good to observe the native seedbank response before you invest in planting expensive wildflower mixes. You may get some bad plants that come up needing herbicide treatment, and if you have already planted an expensive mix, you may not be able to use herbicides without also killing the high dollar mix. The annual plantings are usually inexpensive, and if you plant only grass species like millet and milo, you can use a broadleaf herbicide over them to take out things like cocklebur, horseweed, etc. Or, if you plant only broadleaf species like buckwheat and sunflower, you can use a grass-killing herbicide over them without harm to take out crabgrass.

Another useful place for food plantings is within timber management systems (mostly pine, but also within hardwoods in some cases). The first year after pines are thinned or clear-cut, logging decks and road edges and more open skid trails can all be planted to an inexpensive annual mix. In the case of clear-cuts, there is no need to plant more expensive legume mixes until after site preparation herbiciding has been completed and the residual activity of the chemicals used has subsided in the soil. Planting these areas to annual mixes helps to start build the soil, minimizes erosion, and provides some food and cover. In all these settings, after a couple years of planting inexpensive annuals, the native seed bank may begin to take over. It can be enhanced by planting native legumes like partridge pea, beggar weeds and lespedezas if necessary.

The bottom-line is, food plantings when used as an enhancement technique can still play a role in quail management within a comprehensive management system that follows the “Thirds Rule,” as promoted in the Tall Timbers’ Bobwhite Quail Management Handbook: one third shrubby escape cover, one third weedy/grassy cover for nesting, and one third mostly weedy cover for summer bugging and winter seed foraging, all well distributed throughout a property.

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Marc Puckett

Photo by Meghan Marchetti, VDWR

Marc Puckett is a Small Game Project Leader with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (VDWR).

Marc has worked with VDWR for 25+ years. He currently serves as the small game project co-leader. He was involved in several quail studies, including for his master’s degree at NCSU. He served his country for four years in the US Army’s Airborne Infantry. Marc resides with his family on a farm in central Virginia.