Wood is Good, Even for Quail!
Quail and woodlands are seldom mentioned together. We usually think of quail habitat as open land, consisting of grass or crops and field borders. However, many landowners own some woods along with these classic quail cover types. It’s possible to manage these woodlands to benefit quail. In fact, research has shown that some of the best quail habitat is a mixture of woods, grassland, brushy areas and cropland.
From a quail’s point of view, the trouble with woodlands is that they often have dense canopies and open understories. These do not provide much cover. When properly managed, however, woodlands can provide escape cover from predators, winter cover, loafing areas, and food sources for quail. The same woodland management will also benefit you in the form of timber sales.
The distribution and arrangement of various habitat components is what makes them useful to quail. If the components are concentrated in large blocks, they won’t have as much impact as smaller grass and crop fields mixed with small or narrow woodlots.
Any woodland management practice that thins the forest can help enhance the food and cover needs for quail and increase forest health. One such practice is Timber Stand Improvement. A TSI is typically done where trees are too small to sell. It improves growing conditions for desirable trees by removing trees with poor form or poor growth characteristics.
Another option is a timber sale. A selective harvest thins the forest in a manner similar to that of a timber stand improvement. In selective harvest, you remove only those trees large enough to produce lumber or other wood products. Trees can also be harvested in clumps, creating small openings or clearcuts. These are called regeneration cuts.
Timber sales usually result in access trails and decking areas where the harvester sorts and stacks the cut trees before hauling them to the mill.
If maintained as permanent open cover, these areas make excellent weedy areas. They also can be converted to food plots for quail. Winter wheat, lespedeza, and clover can be planted as additional food sources. Roads can be planted to suitable grasses for quail.
Thinning the forest, either by selective harvest or TSI practice, produces similar results for quail. It allows more sunlight to reach the forest floor.
Many plants beneficial to quail will take advantage of the sunlight provided by the removal of selected trees. Tick trefoil, also known as beggar’s lice, usually springs up. It produces seed that quail and other birds eat throughout the summer and winter. Soft mast producing plants, such as blackberries, raspberries, and gooseberries, also thrive and provide summer and fall foods.
These plants, along with sumac, hazelnut and many others, also provide thick cover to protect quail from predators. A good rule of thumb is that any plant that sticks to you, scratches you and makes it difficult to move through the woods is good for quail. They even eat poison ivy berries.
Small Openings and Clearcuts
If done in the right places and in sufficient quantities, removing all the trees from an area can benefit quail. These new opening quickly fill with plants that provide food for quail. Clearcutting regenerates new forests while benefiting a variety of wildlife. New clearcuts provide abundant food and cover. However, it’s important to know that the value of a clearcut to quail diminishes as the plant community changes.
If you cut all your trees at once, you might fall into the “boom and bust” quail population trap. Your clearcut will provide wonderful habitat for only four or five years. Then, its value to quail declines rapidly.
Re-establishing habitat on relatively young clearcuts is difficult due to the high number of small trees. A better alternative would be to make small clearcuts in different locations every three to five years. This provides sustained habitat for quail and a steady income from the sale of timber.
Where you cut is also important. An opening in the middle of a large woodlot may benefit other wildlife, but it will do little for quail. A clearcut in narrow woodlots, with suitable grassland and cropland on both sides, would connect these two open-land cover types with thick cover and food sources beneficial to quail.
When landowners want brushy cover but don’t have marketable trees, they can modify woodland edges to provide winter and escape cover. Felling all the trees along the edge and 30 feet into the woods allows the edge to grow up like a clearcut. This is called edge feathering. You can cut 50 feet or 50 yards along the woods, depending on how enthusiastically you run the chainsaw.
You may be tempted to do this for the entire woodland edge around a field. Avoid falling into that “boom and bust” trap of quail management by cutting a little every other year to maintain all of the stages over time.
Edge feathering along cropfields has the added benefit of increasing crop yields. Large trees take up moisture that could otherwise help your corn or soybeans grow. Cutting trees along the edge reduces competition for moisture, increasing crop yields. Selective cutting along the edge also improves the growth of the remaining trees, making them more valuable in future timber sales.
STAGES OF A CLEARCUT
Years 1 - 2
Excellent food sources become available. Numerous plants, such as tick trefoil, grasses, partridge pea, ragweed and blackberries, begin growing. Remaining tree seedlings are the foundation of the forest that will regenerate on that site. Treetops left after the harvest provide a tangled maze of cover.
Food sources are still present, and tree seedlings occupy more space. Good escape cover from predators is present. This stage also provides good winter cover. Quail benefit from the combination of herbaceous growth, thickets, shrubs and treetops because it provides cover and emergency food sources during times of heavy snow.
Years 4 - 5
Good escape cover and food sources exist, but as trees grow, they begin to shade out the shrubs and herbaceous vegetation.
Years 6 - 10
Trees form a canopy and shade out the ground cover. Food sources become increasingly scarce at this point, but a forest of this age still provides some thick canopy and dense growth for escape cover.
It’s difficult for hunters to find quail in these areas, but it’s also hard for hawks and other predators to find them.
Help is available
A forester or private land conservationist can help you decide whether to implement timber stand improvement, selective harvest, clearcutting, edge-feathering, or some combination of these timber management practices.
Much of your decision making will have to do with your woodland’s potential. For example, certain areas may contain poor quality trees that are excellent for edge feathering. Wooded draws consisting primarily of elm, honey locust and pin oak may be good candidates for TSI or clearcutting. You may have some nice white oak, red oak, and walnut that should be left alone because they have long-range market potential.
Most quail management practices cost money, but blending them with woodland management may provide income and boost your quail numbers. Your best source of information about programs and assistance available to landowners is your nearest Conservation Department office.