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What Ever Happened to All the Timber Birds?

Nov 15, 2010

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.

History of Missouri's Woodlands

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.

How To Manage A Woodland

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 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.


Kathleen, overall I am greatly increasing the diversity. From an understory of solid cedar in places now I have about 30 species of forbs and grasses. I think the wildlife and insect diversity has also greatly increased just from observation.I still have the same diversity of trees in the overstory. What I have reduced is the unnatural domination of the mid-story by elm and cedar, I have also reduced some overstory domination by shagbark hickory and elm. I have not wiped out anything totally, I probably have 20 large cedars left in one 13 acre tract. They were there 60-100 years ago. I have at least 5 species of oak. I also have a plethora of gooseberry and blackberry on the farm along the edges of the woods. My aim is to keep those plants that grow after the fires, with the exception of some invasive exotic shrubs like honeysuckle. Hope this helps further explain what I have on the farmBill White 

Ms. Moeller,The fire frequency numbers are from numerous studies of tree ring data from various stations througout Missouri. It is possible to reduce the diversity of trees with lots of thinning but most tree species are well-represented in Missouri forests and  it is unlikely that all individuals of any species would be removed. The increased diversity of herbaceous plants in the groundcover would greatly exceed any loss of tree species.  Legumes are one group of plants that respond very well to periodic fires and they provide excellent seeds for wildlife. The only pine species native to Missouri is shortleaf pine and it did not occur historically in Osage County. There would be nothing wrong with planting some shrubs with good wildlife value but it is likely that those species will arrive on their own due to wildlife spreading the seeds around. If conditions are good for the species, they will come.

After reading your blog I have a few questions. First, how do you know fire took place every 3-11 years? Is this from looking at tree rings? Secondly, by thinning out your trees, are you also reducing diversity? Are there different kinds of oak in your woods? What about pine trees - do they have a place in your scheme? Would you plant trees or shrubs in particular, such as on the order of the gooseberry - would you plant blackberries, for example, or would you selectively keep just those plants that grow after your fires? Thanks!

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