With quail season still a month and a half away, die-hard bird hunters may be wondering what to do on weekends between now and Nov. 1. The following are some habitat management projects that can make a big difference for quail survival this winter and nesting and brood rearing success next year.
Many habitat managers have stands of native warm-season grasses (NWSGs). While these grasses are regularly prescribed for quail habitat, their management can affect use by quail. It is desirable to have a rather low density of grass clumps (say one to five clumps per 100 square feet) interspersed amongst a lot of forbs (wildflowers) and clumps of shrubby cover. But many NWSG planting prescriptions (particularly with older CRP contracts) called for very high grass-planting rates that have resulted in very dense stands of tall grasses, such as big bluestem and Indian grass. Native grass stands have traditionally been burned in the late spring, but biologists now know that spring burns (late spring burns especially) encourage heavy grass cover and reduce forb abundance. Fall burns, on the other hand, usually result in shorter, less robust NWSG growth the following year and more forbs. Of course, fall burning eliminates winter cover, so restrict burn-patch size to about one-third of the total grass acres, and burn on a rotation with a different patch burned each year. As a side benefit, fire breaks disked in the fall should grow some very good brood habitat next summer and have plenty of quail-friendly seeds next fall.
Another management activity that can have almost immediate results is edge feathering, sometimes called “chop and drop.” Quail hunters know that coveys are usually found in or near brushy cover in the fall and winter. But while Missouri has lost thousands of miles of hedgerows since the 1970s, those that remain may no longer provide the habitat benefits they once did. Tall, mature trees tend to have few branches down low where quail can use them for protection, and their dense canopy may shade out understory plants that quail prefer for food and cover. While it may seem sacrilegious to suggest cutting trees from the very hedgerow that’s produced many covey flushes over the years, oftentimes this is exactly what’s needed. By dropping mature trees, managers put brushy cover on the ground and allow more sunlight to reach the understory to promote desirable plants. Drop enough trees side by side or slightly overlapping to create a brush patch the size of a couple city buses or larger. Many managers have had great success by windrowing an entire fencerow, but three 1,500-square-foot brush piles per quarter mile is a good starting point. Remember to kill any fescue or brome before you drop the trees, though. Ambitious managers can even improve brushless fields and pastures by dragging cut trees and placing these piles 100 yards apart across the entire field.
Another fall project with big potential is disking for wildlife. With Missouri’s temperate climate, weedy areas with lots of forbs and bare ground can become sodbound in just a few years. Disking is a good way to promote the early successional habitat quail prefer, and fall disking has several advantages. First, fall conditions are usually dry enough to allow disking. Winter snows and spring rains can make spring disking difficult or impossible. Disk now when you can get the tractor where you want it. Another benefit to fall disking is the plant community response. Fall disking typically results in lots of broadleaf plants, such as ragweed and pigweed, the following year. Spring disking, on the other hand, often promotes more annual grasses, such as foxtail and crabgrass, that can get too dense for good habitat and lodge under snow and rain. Deer food plots disked and planted in the fall can be left idle next spring for good brood habitat as well.
As hunting season draws closer, exercise the dogs and shoot a few clay pigeons, but don’t forget to make some habitat improvements as well.