“I understand the need for fire, but when you are burning in May, you are burning up quail, turkey and grouse nests and that can’t be good. Why don’t you burn in winter, or early spring before nesting begins in earnest?”
I am sure many of us who practice prescribed fire have started to hear this more often. And it is partially our fault…as we have not done enough outreach and education about why we sometimes burn in late spring. I have also had it expressed to me that some believe this “growing season” burning occurs primarily due to fear of lost money. Meaning that if an agency has set a budget for burning, and winter weather delays it, if they don’t burn in late spring, they’ll lose the funds.
I’d like to first say that I have seen prescribed fire professionalism increase year-after-year-after-year for over two decades. With increasing public scrutiny, and more and more human encroachment surrounding public lands, the need to be completely professional in the use of prescribed fire has increased. Everyone I know in the profession of wildlife management and forestry use prescribed fire for all the right reasons. With regards to the funds…it is true that in many cases they can’t be carried over from one fiscal year to another, but, in most cases they can be redirected to other appropriate uses during that same fiscal year. The money does not evaporate if not used.
From an economic standpoint, nothing in our wildlife management tool box can treat more acres faster and at a lower cost than prescribed fire. I once helped bush-hog some heavily overgrown fields on one of our Wildlife Management Areas. It took two of us working all day for three days running two 75 horsepower tractors to complete 40 acres of mowing. That same acreage could have been safely burned in 3 to 4 hours. But we had fallen behind on burning…and the vegetation had reached a stage where fire would no longer set it back to the desired condition. And this is one key reason growing season fire is sometimes applied. It can be the only time during which fire will have enough impact to set back plant succession to the desired condition to favor, quail, grouse, woodcock, turkey and many songbirds and pollinating insects.
Let me explain a couple things. First – it is good to mix up the timing of burning. A good practitioner would never want to burn a particular tract only in the winter, or only in the late spring, etc. Fire practitioners often use winter fire to reduce heavy fuel loads after a thinning operation. Winter fire can also top kill some young pine and hard wood competition, help scarify native plant seeds to increase germination rates, and remove duff making foraging easier for some wildlife species. But if managing for quail, grouse or turkey is your goal, some growing season fire is going to have to be applied. And sometimes that may be later in the season…into May. This may seem counterintuitive, but let’s stop and think a minute.
Suppose we can’t burn a timbered tract (either thinned pines or hardwoods) in late winter because it stays wet and cold. It stays wet into spring, and then we finally get some good burning weather in May. We have choices. We can delay and perhaps try again in fall. Or we can delay a full year, hoping for good conditions in early spring, or we can burn it now…in May and risk losing a few nests – though studies show percentages of lost nests are low (Kilburg et al. 2104). Given that most entities using fire have limited budgets, staffs and time, and given that we cannot predict the weather in two weeks, much less months…many good managers would choose to burn in May. If we don’t burn in May, and then we can’t burn the following year…for all practical purposes that block of habitat is going to be “lost.” Meaning we have no real way of managing it now until it is clear-cut, replanted and reaches thinning age again in 20 to 25 years. What we have done is traded a few nests this year for potentially far more nests in subsequent years if we had been able to stay ahead on the management of the unit.
It is also funny as humans we tend to use rationalization when it benefits us. How often do we make decisions based on short-term gain that could lead to long-term loss…debt comes to mind…go ahead and buy that boat and worry about paying for it later. Right? You only live once. But rarely do we use the counter-equation – “Short-term loss for a long-term gain.” Such as “I don’t really need a 64” flat screen TV to watch the Superbowl…let’s save that money for a trip this summer.” In the case of growing season fire, we make a very well thought out decision based on short-term loss traded for long-term gain. I think if you asked most of the tax-paying public…they’d appreciate our use of that view. I am not sure why when it comes to prescribed fire they don’t seem to.
I stated all the above as a seasoned professional, and I know these things to be true after 26 years in this profession reading about fire, practicing fire and observing the results of fires on a variety of landscapes. My colleagues and I will continue to make decisions about the use of fire based on science, knowledge and practical experience with wildlife’s and the public’s best long-term interests at heart.
Citations and further reading:
Lightning Season Burning: Friend or Foe of Breeding Birds? Cox, J. and B. Widner. Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, Miscellaneous Publication 17/ http://www.talltimbers.org/images/pubs/FireBreedingBirdsBooklet-small.pdf
Kilburg, E., C. Moorman, C. Deperno, D. Cobb and C. Harper. 2014. Wild turkey nest site survival and nest site selection in the presence of growing season prescribed fire. Journal of Wildlife Management 78(6): 1033 – 1039.
Restoration in the Southern Appalachians: A Dialogue Among Scientists, Planners and Land Managers. Eds. W.T. Rankin and Nancy Herbert. U.S. Forest Service: Research and Development Southern Research Station. General Technical Report SRS-189.
I have been known to say the following: “If it were not for cut-overs, there may not be a quail left in Virginia.”
Some may want to tar and feather me for making such a statement. It is not entirely true, because there are a lot of landowners, non-governmental organizations, corporations and other entities who are doing “purposeful” early-succession species management. But timber harvesting is one of the few activities on our current landscape that creates between 200,000 and 250,000 acres of early-successional habitat annually in Virginia. That acreage dwarfs those purposely created specifically for wildlife. It is one of the few examples of things that occur on our landscape from which quail can still be considered a by-product.
I also believe that modern cut-overs, or clear-cuts as some call them, do not produce wildlife habitat like they did 40 or 50 years ago. Many attribute this to the intense herbicide treatments required for production forestry in many cases. I agree that this is part of, but not the only reason. I also want to state what I am saying is not criticism of the forest products industry or forestry in general. Modern timber management relies on more efficient harvesting methods and equipment, and more on herbicides and less on mechanical disturbance and fire for site preparation. This has pros and cons from a wildlife standpoint. There is no argument that modern forestry makes much more efficient use of the wood harvested. Which means that there is less debris left over on cut-over sites, and mechanical windrowing and site preparation burning is a thing of the past. Those old unsightly windrows made some excellent hedgerows for quail and that mechanical soil disturbance scarified seeds and produced ragweed, partridge pea and poke weed in abundance. But it also contributed to soil erosion and reduced water quality. So gains made on those fronts offset the losses in other areas. Regardless of whether we all agree that cut-overs are better or worse for wildlife these days, that is not what I’ve set out to address. I’d rather focus on the things that landowners can choose to do to give their modern cut-overs a boost from a wildlife standpoint.
First – assume it is a given that herbicides are going to be used in the reforestation of a clear-cut…at least east of the Blue Ridge. Clearcuts in the mountains may still be allowed to regenerate naturally. What can be done prior to any herbicide work, or after it, is the widening of logging roads and the expansion of logging decks to create wildlife corridors and clearings. You might even be able to work with your logger to gain some help. They often have a dozer on site and may be willing to do some of this work for you as a side job.
Identify logging roads you may wish to continue to use to get around your property. Widen each edge out 30’ feet or more if you can afford the lost future timber income (it’s easy to do the math to figure out how many acres of future timber you are giving up – length times width in feet divided by 43,560 = acres). By doing this you allow sunlight in to keep your roads dry during bad weather. You also create long corridors that can be managed by periodic disking or mowing to keep them open. They can also be planted with wildlife friendly mixes depending on what species you want to help most.
Logging decks can be expanded in much the same way as road edges. It’s OK to leave a few slash piles around a deck, but debris piles should not surround the deck. It’s best to spread the slash back through the timbered area evenly, leaving only a few piles to form thickets on the deck edges. Even quail do not like to be completely surrounded by slash piles. Once the deck has been cleaned off, a sub-soiler, or ripper, which is usually pulled by a dozer or very strong tractor, can be used to break up the compacted “hardpan” soil before it is disked. If this isn’t practical for you from a financial standpoint, you can also top sow a cheap cover crop like browntop millet or buck wheat. Success can be achieved even without disking. The dozer work to clean off the deck leaves nice track prints crisscrossing the ground. These track marks capture seed and, more importantly, hold water when it rains. This allows good plant germination. These plantings immediately start to help rebuild the soil. Use a cheap cover crop when planting because herbicides have not been applied yet. After herbicides have been applied, more options open up.
The key to planting after herbicides is to make sure you know what was applied. Some herbicides used in forestry have quite a lengthy soil residual period. This means that they continue to control plants for 90 to 120 days or more after being applied. Make sure you work with your forester and understand what was applied and when it will be safe to plant.
You might also choose to create some additional openings. Tall Timbers Research Station’s work has shown that, depending on soil quality, as much as 30% of the timbered area should be in well distributed fields 2 to 5 acres in size. The lower the soil quality, the more important the fields become. This will, of course, cost you in future timber income, but should be based on your goals and financial situation. These fields are called “brood fields” by the TTRS folks and their goal is get a high amount of ragweed on them. Many times this can be accomplished by fall disking and sowing of winter wheat, then simply leaving fallow. As with logging decks and road edges, don’t plant these fields until after all herbicides have been applied and the safe “plant back date” has been achieved.
Lastly, you might also consider marking some mast-producing leave trees within the cut-over. In the mountains this can be especially important for grouse. Grouse in their southern range eat a lot of acorns. They love the cover produced by regenerating clear-cuts, and more of that cover will also provide food if some good mast-producing trees are left. The edges of the cut-overs and all streamside management zones should have plenty of oak, cherry, dogwood, etc. available. But, on larger clear-cuts there will be a dearth of food-producing trees out in the cut itself. In the mountains where follow-up herbiciding is not as common, the leave trees won’t interfere with herbicide applications. But in the east, they might. Work with your forester to plan ahead and identify areas within a clear-cut where some leave trees will not adversely affect competition control.
These were just a few ideas you might choose to implement after timber harvest on your land. As always your best route is to work with your local forester and wildlife biologist together to come up with a plan best for your land.
… then I have pollinator habitat! The field pictured, I presume, is the result of my sericea lespedeza management program. The field has a serious infestation of sericea lespedeza, which I have been haphazardly trying to control the past few years until last year. Last year the infestation became severe enough I decided to get aggressive with it or fear losing it to total dominance by sericea and loss of significant habitat value.
The field was burned the second week of August and patches of sericea that didn’t burn because they were too thick, were mowed. I followed that up with an herbicide application of PastureGard HL at the rate of 1 pint per acre in late September. The above image is what the field looks like this spring.
Admittedly, there was penstemon present before sericea treatment but not at this density. The questions in my mind are: Did killing the sericea release the penstemon? Did burning in August stimulate the penstemon? Is penstemon tolerant to PastureGard HL? Or all of the above? All questions I hope to learn the answers to over the next few years.
The good news, upon casual observation, I got 90 – 95% control of sericea. There are still plants there but some targeted spot spraying will keep the sericea in check – for this year.
After photographing the penstemon I took a look around at a few other native plants flowering on my farm. Spiderwort has always intrigued me. Most folks I know call it spiderwort but there are a couple of common names used that I think best describe the plant, a.k.a. snotweed or cow slobbers. When the stem is broken it oozes a clear, viscous sap that resembles . . . one of its common names. I really think cow slobbers is the best descriptor.
There are several species of spiderwort and, of those, they can be basically divided into two different categories, one group of species adapted to woodland settings and the others to open grasslands. Spiderworts are used by a number of pollinators.
Eastern gamagrass is a perennial grass that is a distant relative to corn. Like corn, it is monoecious, having separate male and female flowers on the same plant, but unlike corn, both are on the same spike. The photographs below show the stamens and stigmas. The timing of the photographs just happens to be of only stamens and stigmas. Both will be expressed on the same seed stalk within hours or a day.
Sensitive briar or cat-claw sensitive briar has an interesting bloom, the pink florets arranged to form a pink ball, with each floret tipped in yellow. Close examination of the “thorns” show they are shaped like a cat-claw and if you’ve ever inadvertently walked through them in the prairie you understand how this plant got one of its common names, devil’s shoestrings.
In summer, when the seed pods ripen and dry, they will twist and split open, expelling their seeds on the ground. Collecting their seed can be a challenge, one because of the “cat-claws” and two your timing has to just right or the pods have burst open and shattered all their seed. The folding leaves of sensitive briar are fun to show kids why this plant got its name, when they fold up upon touch. Livestock and deer browse the plants; quail, other birds and rodents eat the seeds.
Things are happening in the prairies and grasslands this time of year. Get out and enjoy the wildflowers and wildlife.
Much debate centers on whether coyotes are good or bad for populations of deer and turkey (This also may depend on who you ask … hunters, farmers, ranchers, or the general public.) I’ll leave those questions to folks who are experts on those species. But I also hear a lot of discussion about whether coyotes are good, bad or neutral for bobwhites. Admittedly, I have not had time to do a comprehensive literature review on this subject. I did some research and made a few phone calls, so this is not totally opinion based.
In food habits studies done on coyote scats, quail remains are never found in high percentages. You might be asking yourself, “Well…is that because the studies were done in areas that had no quail to begin with, or were the studies done in areas where quail were abundant?”
That is an astute question because if one were to study coyote food habits in central Pennsylvania, you would not find quail in their scats because there are not any quail there.
Luckily, there have been studies done on coyote food habits where quail are abundant. Perhaps none more so than in the Rolling Plains of Texas back in the early 1970s. The study by Meinzer et al. (1975) looked at both scat and stomach content. They did find a few quail remnants, but less than 1% by volume in scat and stomach analysis. What they found, like many other subsequent studies, was a very large volume of fruits. Nine species of plants made up 46% of the coyotes’ diet. Like most other studies I have read they also found a lot of rodents and rabbits. And there were only trace amounts of other predators found (opossum and skunk). Coyotes in Virginia eat a lot of fruit, too, especially blackberries and persimmons. Grasshoppers are also high on their summertime list of preferred foods.
The most recent predator scat analysis work done in western Virginia by Morin et al. (2016) shed some light on validity of scat analysis alone in determining coyote, bobcat and bear diet. These researchers used mitochondrial DNA analysis to positively identify all scats found and compare the results to how researchers classified the scats based on visual evidence. They found that the accuracy of visual identification of scats was low for bobcats (57.1%) and coyotes (54.0%) with each quite often being mistakenly identified as the other.
What’s this have to do with quail?
First it says that older studies based solely on visually identified scat analysis for coyotes may be inaccurate (go back to my first paragraph and note the study I cited used both scat analysis and positively identified stomach content – making it more accurate). They found very few bird remains in either coyote or bobcat scats, but more bird remains in bobcats than coyotes. And, in both cases some mesopredator remains were found in their scats, with bobcats’ apparently consuming mesopredators slightly more than coyotes (don’t mess with no bobcats, Man!).
Though not identified by species in the paper I read, it does point to their occasionally eating other predators. In each case their primary mammalian foods were deer (some killed, some carrion), squirrels, rabbits and voles. Based on all the work I have read over the years, on personal conversations with noted biologists and trappers, and on my own personal observations, I feel comfortable saying coyotes are not directly harmful to quail populations. But could they be beneficial?
Like many such questions, the answers are not always easy, and many out there get mad at biologists for saying things like “it depends.” But it does depend on many factors, such as what is the local prey base? What is the local suite of mesopredators – animals like armadillos, opossums, raccoons, red and grey foxes, and bobcats? Add other predator pressures such as raptors and reptiles and you quickly have a system that is complex.
Are coyotes in some way limiting the populations of, or the behavior of, animals that are detrimental to quail? Henke and Bryant (1999) studied the removal of coyotes from an ecosystem in western Texas. They demonstrated what they termed “mesopredator release” – an increase in the abundance of smaller sized predators like raccoons, skunks, badgers, gray foxes and bobcats with the removal of the dominant coyote. This phenomenon occurred after just one year of coyote removal.
Sovada et al. (1995) showed that coyote removal led to an influx of red foxes, which resulted in a greater loss of waterfowl production in the Prairie Pothole Region. Data in the east on this subject is hard to come by, but in a paper by McVey et al. (2013) where researchers studied the diets of coyotes and red wolves in northeastern North Carolina (where they co-occur), they used DNA analysis to positively identify 228 scats (179 red wolf and 64 coyote). Rabbits, white-tailed deer and rodents were the most common prey for both species. And raccoon remains were only found in 4 out of the 179 red wolf scats, none in the coyote scats. No other mesopredators were found in any of the 228 scats. Great, perfect…what a mess. What does this mean?
It could mean that there was such an abundance of preferred prey that coyotes and red wolves had no reason to kill other predators. It could mean that after several decades of coyote and red wolf predation pressure, populations of these mesopredators were very low in the study area.
I spent a year of my life over a two-year period studying bobwhite quail in northeastern North Carolina on Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, where in spite of all the dirt roads I walked, and countless hours I spent out in the field, I never saw a raccoon (not even a track), fox, and rarely an opossum. What I saw a lot of were bears, red wolves and bobcats. There were also a lot of quail…though our quail nest survival rates were no better than the average reported in most quail literature (about 33%).
So, I conclude that…
1) predator control should only be considered if you have maximized your habitat efforts and you still do not see the number of quail you’d reasonably expect to see on the number of acres you have. If there is a covey of quail for every 25 acres of quail habitat you have in Virginia, you will be hard pressed to do much better than that even with predator control. But if you have several hundred acres of excellent quail cover and you only have two or three coveys of quail, chances are control of mesopredators will be beneficial,
2) In Virginia where quail are not that abundant, and where many nest predators are abundant, and where we don’t see people hunting or trapping like they used to, my opinion is that coyotes are beneficial for quail. They are helping to do what hundreds of farmland trappers used to do in a bygone era. I do not have the direct data to support that. But if I were trapping to try to help quail, I would not focus on coyotes.
Literature cited: Henke S.E. and F.C. Bryant. 1999. Effect of coyote removal on the faunal community in western Texas. Journal of Wildlife Management 63. 1066-1081. McVey J., D. Cobb, R. Powell, M. Stoskopf, J. Bohling, L. Waits, and C. Moorman. 2013. Diets of sympatric red wolves and coyotes in northeastern North Carolina. Journal of Mammalogy 94(5): 1141-1148. Meinzer, W., D. Ueckert and J. Flinders. 1975. Foodniche of coyotes in the Rolling Plains of Texas. Journal of Range Management 28(1): 22-26. Morin D., S. Higdon, J. Holub, D. Montague, M. Fies, L. Waits, and M. Kelly. 2016. Bias in carnivore diet analysis resulting from misclassification of predator scats based on field identification. Wildlife Society Bulletin 40(4):669-677. Sovada, M., A. Sargeant, and J. Grier. 1995. Differential effects of coyotes and red foxes on duck nest success. Journal of Wildlife Management 59:1-9.
Early in my career I was guilty of arrogance in my statements that habitat alone was all that was needed to produce great populations of bobwhite quail.
I recall being on a field tour in eastern Virginia, the primary purpose of which was to highlight quail habitat management. Halfway through the tour, as I had been espousing the benefits of great habitat management all morning, we came to a stop where an old gentlemen stood next to a cage trap which had a live red fox. The man was wiry, and though old, still in excellent health. He proceeded to tell the audience in his rural Virginia twang how he had worked for NASA for decades before he retired and got into the quail management business. He was a good speaker and I recall one statement vividly…because coming from a former NASA scientist, it shot my credibility down a notch or two.
He said “The biologists will tell you nature reaches a balance on its own, and that you need not go messing around with it by doing predator control. Well…that may have been true back when there were lots of big predators and small predators, and back when the landscape was more natural…but right now, after all we have done to this landscape as humans…there is no such thing as balance. Things are out of whack, and if you want a lot of quail you need to do predator control.”
I felt “bushwhacked” because no one told me this fellow would be a part of the tour. But once I swallowed my pride, I got to know this gentleman over the years. I came to realize that he was right in some ways.
Further, research from several entities, most notably Tall Timbers Research Station, began to clearly demonstrate that control of what are termed mid-sized mammalian predators could have a positive effect on quail populations. Our own studies in Virginia also showed that there was no shortage of “nest predators” either. Animals such as raccoons, opossums, red and gray foxes, and skunks could take a severe toll on quail nests, even if they did not kill that many adult quail.
So here is what I believe now.
First, I know beyond doubt that having great habitat is the foundation for all wildlife management. So whether as a landowner you’re managing large or small acreage for quail, the first thing you have to do is learn what good habitat consists of…and then be honest with yourself whether you have enough of it to support quail or not. You can spend lots of money and/or time doing things in an effort to enhance a quail population that will never respond because of poor habitat. The old saying about building a house on sand versus stone applies fittingly to habitat and bobwhites. If your “quail house” is built on stone, then you can pursue tactics than can increase quail survival throughout the year.
Something I noted in Tall Timbers Bobwhite Quail Management Handbook struck me like a baseball bat. They demonstrated that the difference between an increasing versus a decreasing quail population is just a few percentage points in annual survival. In fact, if a quail population does not have a survival rate higher than 20% annually, it is unlikely to increase…but if it runs just a few points higher than that …like the average 23% survival quail enjoy at Tall Timbers, the population can increase substantially. But if the annual survival falls below 15%…steady decline will ensue. So, a manager must do everything to maximize quail annual survival if they want to see their populations increase.
I also want you to think about that 23% number. On what are arguably the very best managed quail lands in the country, where quail experience optimal survival rates…annual survival only averages 23%. Quail evolved as prey…so a lot of death is in their ecology…but if you can boost their chances just a little, they can thrive. Going from 14% annual survival to 21% annual survival…a difference of just 7 points, can make all the difference.
So let’s just run out there and start killing everything we think might kill a quail or destroy a nest, right? Not unless you want to waste a lot of time, kill a lot of things that probably are not causing any harm and run the risk of upsetting the apple cart to the point where you may never get the wheels back on it.
Let’s first consider raptors…like hawks and owls. You need to abandon your ideas about raptor control. They are protected for good reason. There are large numbers of people in our society who value raptors as much as some of us value quail. I am one of them. Studies have shown that through proper habitat management, you can minimize raptor predation on quail. Having ample protective cover is critical.
Studies out of Texas that observed quail behavior when pursued by raptors clearly demonstrated that a quail’s best friend was thorny escape cover (Cat claw acacia was one of the best in Texas – think wild plum, greenbrier and blackberry in the east). This led to a rule Dr. Dale Rollins developed called the “Softball Rule” – standing out in your quail habitat, quail thickets should never be more than a good softball throw away.
And what about another often maligned quail nest predator – snakes? What quite often preys on snakes? Yes, raptors…and other snakes.
So what predators should we try to control?
One statistic that sticks out in my mind from the Tall Timbers Quail Handbook is this: Quail produced on average 44% more chicks on areas where mid-range mammalian predators had been controlled versus areas where no control had been done. Predator trapping increased production and reduced variations in annual survival rates on trapped versus non-trapped areas. Raccoons, foxes, bobcats, opossums, and skunks are key culprits.
Tall Timbers recommends doing a predator survey or index on
your lands. You can find more about how to do this on their website (http://talltimbers.org/measuring-the-predator-context-on-your-land-to-manage-predation-of-bobwhites/), but in a nutshell, they use a mineral oil and sand mix and place sand rings along roads, trails throughout their properties. They alternate sides of woods roads and trails about 500 yards apart. When the index reaches 20% or greater (meaning 1 out of 5 sand rings has fresh predator tracks in them) they recommend intense predator trapping.
Trapping is a good, honest form of outdoor recreation that requires a great deal of skill. The animals being trapped are not vermin. They are part of our environment and have an established place in the ecosystems in which we live. I support predator trapping when it is conducted ethically as a form of legal animal harvest.
In Virginia, we have a legal trapping season that runs from mid-November until the end of February, depending on species. For some species, such as striped skunk and coyote, the season is year-round. My recommendation to landowners intensively managing for quail would be to have an experienced trapper thoroughly trap their lands as late into the legal trapping season as feasible. This can create a window of time during which new predators may not re-occupy the area before ample nesting has occurred.
Once a relationship is established with a good trapper, allow them to trap every year. This helps keep the tradition of trapping alive (I have many fond memories of my teenage trapline) and has the potential to help some declining species like quail do better.
Here are some other predator management BMPs to consider:
1) Increase the quantity and quality of protective cover (thorny thickets – as much as 1/3 of the quail’s range and well distributed)
2) Make sure all cover types a quail needs are well interspersed (good feeding and bugging areas near good escape cover)
3) Minimize large dirt-laden piles of debris, dilapidated outbuildings, and other such attractors of burrowing predators
4) When a choice exists, conduct habitat management on uplands as far from swamplands as possible, as swamps tend to harbor more mammalian predators
I will end by saying I think you can have some quail without doing predator control…but to develop a highly populated quail plantation, you will need to do predator control.