While we frequently hear this question, I was reminded of it again this weekend while we were hunting a timbered area on our farm. A covey of quail flushed from one of the many brushpiles we created while restoring the woodland.
Missouri’s woodlands and forests have changed since the arrival of European settlers. Changes in land use, fire frequency and type, open range livestock grazing and other human impacts have changed the character and structure of Missouri’s forests and woodlands. Before the settlement of Missouri, it is estimated that 70 percent of what is now dense tree growth was a mixture of savannas, glades and woodlands all with an abundant grass and wildflower understory. The average tree density then was 10 to 60 trees per acre. Today if you look at our forests you may see anywhere from 200 to 600 stems per acre. In areas where hard maple have invaded the stem density approaches 2,000 per acre.
The lack of properly timed disturbance including fire or timber harvest on the landscape has created a shaded understory with a dense leaf layer. This suppresses seed-producing plants and eliminates bare ground that quail require. It also keeps the oak species from producing new replacement trees and encourages shade loving hickories, elms, maples or cedars to take over, thus producing even more shade. Historically, the Missouri Ozarks woodlands on south- and west-facing slopes saw fire once every three to 11 years depending on the location.
The woodland community on my farm in Osage County is typical of the poor condition of much of Missouri’s oak woodlands. Dense shade, no young oaks, lots of shade loving trees and a thick layer of leaves. I wanted to get it suitable for quail and back to health. My first task was to knock down all the cedars in the forest understory. Most of these were less than 40 years old and averaged about 50 cedars per acre...no sunlight EVER reached the forest floor in some locations. Now I can see to the other side of the woodland!
Next, I girdled all the trees that were not going to contribute to the health of the forest. I girdled all the trees that had been overtopped by the largest oaks and then the elms and honey locust. This amounts to about 35 trees per acre on average. I thinned the shagbark hickory down to about 10 trees per acre by girdling. I then thinned the oaks in areas where they were competing against each other for canopy space.
All told, I have knocked 100 to 150 stems per acre out of my forest and I have somewhere between 50 to 120 stems per acre of good oak and hickory left with some dogwood and redbud in the understory. I also brought the quail back to the timber…real timber birds. Two coveys that became one before winter's end stayed in a 10-acre patch of trees in 2007. They used a large area of gooseberry shrubs in the understory and the cedar piles in the woodland. Whenever the quail flushed they didn’t fly far--a few feet, and then back under the gooseberry. We have had quail in the timber ever since.
When the winter let up, I burned one-half of the woodland area, which removed the leaf layer and you should see the response of the wildflowers, legumes, and woodland grasses that came back. I did not burn the gooseberries so I could keep the covey headquarters. This fire knocked out much of the small elms and cedars, which are way too numerous to tackle with a chainsaw--call me lazy! The deer and songbirds have responded to the burn and the lush new vegetation.
Finally, we pulled or sprayed all of the invasive shrub honeysuckle. I plan to keep thinning the timber by picking on the hickories and crooked oaks. I will burn at least every few years to keep the leaf litter and baby cedars at a minimum. If I get some oak seedlings going I will need to back off the burning for a few years until they are big enough to tolerate fire. What I have done ensures the long-term health and sustainability of my oak woodland community and the presence of quail in the trees once again.
Consult with a forester or biologist to get the most from your timber stand improvement efforts. Improving your woodland may add a little money to your pocket and a return of the timber birds.