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Fall Projects for Quail Managers

Sep 26, 2011

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.

Strike a Match

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.

Chop and Drop

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.

Stir Some Dirt

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.


Tree cut down beside open field to create quail habitat
Edge Feathering


Scott, I tried burning today but the burn was spotty and the still green ragweed did not burn high along with other green weeds. Is this normal for a fall burn,also is it better to burn a grown up field that has some little bluestem in it in the spring or fall. I want to encourage the wsg's for nesting purposes so I don't need to buy more wsg's. Should I just split it in half? Thanks for the info.

Quail Man - spotty burns like you describe are more common in the fall, because there are usually some (maybe lots) of green plants intermixed with the cured grass fuels. Because of the moisture they contain, these green plants often just wilt instead of burning. This is fine. The areas with heavy grass litter will usually burn ok, resulting in patches of bare ground and good responses from desirable forbs. Spotty burns can actually produce better habitat at times, because the resulting plant community has nesting cover mixed with brood habitat. Burn timing has important implications for vegetation response. If you want to increase native warm season grasses such as the little bluestem that you mention, then a late spring burn would be more likely to accomplish that goal. Remember that quail typically build their nests with dead grasses from the previous year, so you should not burn all the grassy nesting areas on your property at the same time. By leaving one half to two thirds unburned, you will leave some places for the birds to nest, while the adjacent burned patches will serve as good brood habitat after nests hatch. Just rotate these burn patches around so that you burn the whole thing in two or three years. --Scott Sudkamp

With conditions as dry as they are is burning still recomended?

Great question Gary.  While prescribed burning is one of the best tools we have for managing quail habitat, it's certainly something that requires plenty of planning, help, and an understanding of fire behavior. The key word here is prescribed . Burning should only be done within the parameters identified in a prescribed burn plan, including temperature, relative humidity, and wind speed and direction. Good firebreaks are a must as well. When burns are carried out within the prescriptions of a reviewed and approved burn plan and with good firebreaks, they are most likely to stay within desired boundaries. Should a fire escape these boundaries, a burn plan identifies additional firebreaks that can be used to fall back on, as well as other contingencies and actions to take in case of problems.With these things in mind, quail managers can still perform prescribed burns assuming there are no local burn bans in place and they are following the prescriptions and guidelines spelled out in the plan. At this time of year, humidities are often relatively high early and late in the day and temperatures are cooler then as well. These cool, damp conditions can be used to help manage fire intensity and behavior, but again, follow an approved burn plan. And if your test fire suggests erratic fire behavior, put it out and wait for a better day.-Scott Sudkamp

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