In wake of Hurricane Michael, timber farmers should consider the wildlife
BY ARLO KANE, private lands biologist
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Bobwhite quail have always been considered a farm-game species. Their habitat needs are best met by open areas composed of mostly bunch grasses, weeds, and scattered brush – all the things you would find around a small farm in the 1930s. Quail have been on a slow long decline since that time. But it was really in the 1970s things took a sharp decline when then-Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz told farmers to “get big or get out” and to “plant fence row to fence row,” both of which were detrimental to bobwhite populations and to small family farms.
Bobwhites do live in other habitats besides farmland. Some of the highest population densities have been found in rangelands and open, low-density pinelands. The open pineland of Tall Timbers Research Station near Tallahassee has one of the highest densities of quail anywhere.
The key to increasing bobwhite densities is to create habitat that meets the species’ daily and seasonal needs. Creating great bobwhite habitat is as simple as providing bunch grasses for nesting, weeds for brood habitat, bare ground for dusting, and scattered clumps of shrubs for escape and loafing cover. Much of north Florida is now planted to dense pine plantations or large, clean crop fields that are not good bobwhite habitat. Mature, heavily thinned pine plantations with a more open structure can be great habitat but it takes 20 to 30 years to get to that stage.
Hurricanes like Hurricane Michael can devastate pine plantations. Many landowners lost huge investments when hurricane Michael destroyed their timber. These landowners are now looking for alternative uses for their land. While many people enjoy working dogs and hunting bobwhites, the opportunities are few outside the red hills region. The landowners who do not want to go back to timber or who want to add another income opportunity until they can again harvest timber, may want to consider creating a quail plantation or incorporating quail into their timber replanting strategy.
A recent study by Tall Timbers Research Station indicated that in the six-county area that composes the red hill region, quail hunting generated $194 million in total economic impact and $84 million in wages. Clearly, for those who want to generate some annual income while waiting for a newly planted timber stand to begin generating some income, creating good quail habitat could be one part of the solution.
How do you create good quail habitat?
Start by viewing the world from the ground up to about 8 inches, the size of a mature bobwhite. Bobwhites are walking birds that spend most of their time on the ground, only flying in short bursts to escape predators. If you were an 8-inch-tall bird who weighed less than 1 pound, and picked seeds off the ground for food, what kind of habitat would you want to live in?
First, you would want to be able to walk around easily and find seeds laying on the ground. You would need at least 30 percent bare ground. Pastures and lawns with sod grasses like bahia won’t do. You couldn’t find the seeds that drop through the thatch and would starve to death.
You also need some cover for protection from predators and the weather. Clumps of small brush like Chickasaw plum or blackberry provide good cover to protect bobwhites from aerial predators. Between morning and evening, bobwhites spend the day resting under the shade of brush in areas we call loafing coverts. Loafing coverts are thickets that provide protection from aerial predators, the heat in the summer, the cold in the winter, but are small enough to allow bobwhites to easily fly away from approaching ground predators. You need small shrub thickets that are no more than 10- by 15-feet square and open underneath. These shrub thickets should make up no more than 10 to 25 percent of the area.
You need good nesting cover. Bobwhite nest on the ground and use bunch grasses that grow in clumps to create their nests. A bobwhite nest looks like a cave tunneled into the bases of a grass clump. Fields with broomsedge, Indiangrass, chalky bluestem, switchgrass, and wiregrass are ideal. You need about 300 clumps per acre, roughly one clump every 12 feet for good nesting habitat.
Once chicks hatch, they are going to need food. Chick feeding areas are called brood rearing habitat and should be next to their nesting habitat.
What does brood rearing habitat look like? Mostly weeds that are attractive to insects. Bobwhite chicks feed on insects exclusively for the first few weeks of life and weeds attract more insects than grasses. Good brood habitat has bare ground underneath with a canopy of weeds that provide protection from above. Ragweed, partridge pea, and beggarweeds provide good food and cover. You also want to have escape cover within about 75 feet of the brood habitat.
Where do you start?
If you are considering converting your destroyed pine plantation to quail habitat, where do you start? If you plan to replant pines, then consider planting longleaf pine in patches or strips, so that you have open areas to hunt and a good amount of sunlight reaches the ground. Plant and encourage native warm season bunchgrasses as much as possible. Establish disk strips in the winter to encourage native plants such as ragweed for brood rearing habitat.
Be careful not to disk up your native warm season grasses in the process. Shrubs like plum, blackberry, palmetto, or blueberry thickets should come back on their own, but if not, consider planting three or four Chickasaw plum trees close together to make a loafing covert. Plant a few of these thickets or create hedgerows for escape cover. Remember to mix the nesting, brood rearing, and escape cover so that quail don’t have to move far to encounter each habitat type anywhere on the property.
Finally, get comfortable with prescribed burning to maintain the habitat once it is created. With a lot of sunlight hitting the ground, things are going to grow. If left alone, woody species will grow and take over the habitat. It is natural succession and it is going to happen. Fire can be used to set succession back to the bobwhite’s preferred grassy/weedy habitat.
Remember, if you want to create quail habitat, you are not on your own. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) Landowner Assistance Program has private lands biologists who can provide you with technical advice at no charge. The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service offers financial assistance to landowners through the Working Lands for Wildlife – Bobwhite Quail Initiative to help landowners create or improve bobwhite habitat.
To learn more about managing wildlife on your property, check our habitat how-to section at the FWC’s Landowner Assistance Program by going to MyFWC.com/LAP. If you need technical assistance you can also contact the LAP regional biologist at the FWC Regional Office. To apply for financial and technical assistance, contact your local NRCS District Conservationist.