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Quail Habitat Projects for Turkey Hunters

Sep 21, 2009

image of bobwhiteThis spring, Department biologists received several phone calls and emails from turkey hunters on what happened to our state's turkey population. Here are a couple points I often highlighted with hunters. First, Missouri still has one of the highest turkey populations in the nation and some of the finest spring turkey hunting (more than 44,000 harvested during the 2009 spring season). Second, the status of the state's turkey population is a high priority for the Department, as are other ground-nesting species like bobwhite quail and songbirds. Third, Department biologists and conservation partners will continue to promote habitat management as an effective way to minimize the impacts of extreme weather and poor nesting success. Fourth, pray for a dry May and June in 2010. The past three years have been tough on ground-nesting birds.

Despite the extreme weather conditions, I'm still receiving success stories from landowners on both quail and wild turkey. Some reported the turkey hunting was incredible in 2009 (me being one of them). Others are reporting several quail broods and lots of whistling bobs. While the stories come from different parts of the state, they all have something in common--the landowners are doing habitat management for bobwhite quail!

Quail habitat management produces excellent habitat for nesting and brooding turkeys. Hard work today will result in heart-pounding experiences two or three years later.

So what can a landowner do to improve habitat conditions for turkey on their farm? Simple, manage for bobwhites. Ten Quail Habitat Projects Turkey Hunters Should Do:

1. Edge Feather

Creating patches of low-growing woody cover along the edges of fields provides excellent habitat for bobwhites and rabbits. Turkeys will also use edge feathering for nesting cover.

2. Woodland Restoration

Work with a resource professional to identify potential woodland sites on your property. Woodland restoration involves thinning out the undesirable and overstocked trees to allow more sunlight on the woodland floor. It also involves reintroducing prescribed fire to the site. It takes several years before bobwhites will start using woodlands for nesting and brooding cover; however, turkeys love these sites. In fact, I've seen turkeys move into burned woodlands before the smoke cleared. With woodland thinning the cut trees provide excellent nesting cover for wild turkey. The combination of woodland thinning and fire stimulates native grasses, sedges, forbs and legumes on the woodland floor--ideal brooding cover for wild turkey and quail too.

Open woodlands provide good nesting and brooding cover and strutting areas. This woodland is being restored with thinning and prescribed fire. Notice the amount of ground flora.

Work with a resource professional to identify woodland sites on your farm. This woodland is being restored with prescribed fire.

3. Idle Food Plots

Two-year-old food plots are great nesting sites for wild turkeys. The combination of overhead cover and nearby brooding cover is what every turkey mom wants for her young chicks. Here are some more blogs on food plots and flip-flopping food plots.

4. Prescribed Burn Old Fields and Idle Grasslands

Using fire is the easiest way to improve quail and turkey habitat on your property. Burning will help improve brooding cover for wild turkey and help maintain good nesting cover. Rank grass fields are worthless for bobwhites and wild turkeys. Young turkeys have just as much trouble moving through thick grass fields as baby quail. Here's a link to older blogs on prescribed burning.

I like to think these gobblers were the result of the quail habitat management we have done--woodland restoration, native warm-season grass establishment, food plots, edge feathering and fescue eradication.

5. Strip-Disk Old Fields or Idle Grasslands

If you can't burn, try strip-disking grass fields. Disking creates a mix of disturbed and undisturbed areas. I recommend fall disking over spring disking. Fall disking results in a more favorable plant response and you don't have to stop turkey hunting or scouting to get it done.

Strip-disking provides good brooding habitat while the undisturbed patches of grass provide nesting cover.

6. Eradicate Fescue and Smooth Brome

Sod-forming grasses like fescue and brome require intensive management to provide good habitat for quail and wild turkey. Spray these sod-forming grasses with glyphosate to improve brooding cover for wild turkeys.

7. Establish Native Grass and Wildflowers

Once you successfully eradicate the fescue or brome from a field, consider planting native grasses and wildflowers to provide better habitat for quail and turkey. Some fields have enough remnant native grasses and wildflowers that all you need to do is kill the unwanted grasses. There's no reason to plant more grass and wildflowers if you already have a good stand. Native grasses and wildflowers provide better nesting and brooding cover than sod-forming cool-season grasses like fescue and brome. Well managed native grass stands will support more insects than nonnative cool-season grass fields. More insects means more food for foraging turkeys and quail.

8. Timber Stand Improvement

Work with a resource professional to determine if timber stand improvement will improve the health of your forests. Timber stand improvement does three things for wild turkey: 1) the downed trees provide good nesting locations; 2) opening the forest canopy promotes the growth of native grasses, forbs and shrubs, which equals better brooding cover; and 3) thinning out the undesirable trees and overstocked woods will enhance the growth of the remaining trees. Better growth means more hard- and soft-mast production.

Timber stand improvement (TSI) is like weeding a garden. This practice "weeds out" less desirable trees and promotes forest health. Thinning out undesirable trees also allows more sunlight on the forest floor, which enhances the growth of herbaceous plants and sapling trees.

9. Temporary Forest Openings

Call me crazy, but I love creating temporary forest openings for wildlife, especially wild turkey. Ask anyone who has created a temporary forest opening, and they will tell you they see more deer and other wildlife in these temporary openings. Turkeys like temporary forest openings for nesting and brooding habitat. Work with a resource professional to identify potential sites, and get the chainsaw ready. The practice simply involves cutting down nearly all the trees in a 1/4- to 1-acre site. Yep, cut them all down. That's why you need to work with a resource professional to identify the best sites.

Forest openings provide excellent nesting and brooding cover for wild turkey. New forest openings are also used by bobwhites.

10. Give the Mower a Vacation

Mowing destroys nests and degrades brooding habitat for young turkeys and quail. Instead of mowing, spend your time spraying invasive plants like fescue or brome or even strip-disking.

If you're a die-hard turkey hunter and you spend a considerable amount of time managing your farm for turkey and deer, consider managing part of your farm for bobwhites. I think you might like the results. I must put a disclaimer in here. You can't expect a big change by just establishing one patch of edge feathering or converting 1 acre of cool-season grass to natives. However, if you combine several patches of edge feathering, convert an entire field to native grasses and do a little woodland restoration I think you'll like the results. We sure have at my favorite turkey-hunting spot. We have been managing the farm for bobwhites for several years, and the deer and turkey hunting have never been better.

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