Creating Quality Quail Habitat

By David Fiedler | May 2, 2002
From Missouri Conservationist: May 2002

If you ever get out to Ed Kiefner's Bollinger County farm, you'd better have a couple hours to spare in case Ed takes you on a tour.

It doesn't matter if it's 10 degrees or 100; if Kiefner thinks you're interested in seeing his place, he'll have you on those hills before you know it. It's a trip worth taking because of all he has done to enhance wildlife on his farm.

You'll see food plots where Kiefner has planted soybeans and milo for deer and other wildlife, and strips of clover and lespedeza for rabbits and quail. He'll show you cracked-corn dispensers tucked in the edges of his fields. These squatty little boxes, about the size of a two-drawer file cabinet, help nourish wild turkeys in the winter. Your eyes won't miss the hundreds of tiny flags that mark where he's planted new trees.

Beyond these obvious enhancements, Kiefner has gone farther than most to provide wildlife with plenty of food and lots of places to hide from predators and raise their young.

Kiefner's 780 acres are actually three smaller farms that he's patched together since buying the first tract in 1981. The terrain is fairly rugged for southeast Missouri, featuring some steep hills divided by a valley holding the Little Whitewater River and its floodplain. Over the years, he's used the valley for crop and pasture land.

Though Kiefner enjoys doing just about anything outdoors, he's really wild about bird hunting, especially for quail. The quail population on Kiefner's farm had been flat for some years, despite various efforts to increase their numbers. When the quail population really plummeted in 1999, Kiefner decided to contact the Conservation Department.

"I was alarmed at the decline in the quail population, so I called to see if they had any kind of help and information they could provide," Kiefner explained.

Kiefner talked with Larry Heggemann, a private lands conservationist serving Cape Girardeau, Perry and Ste. Genevieve counties. Eventually three Conservation Department employees with expertise in forestry, wildlife biology and watershed/ fisheries issues were involved in analyzing the conditions on Kiefner's farm.

Kiefner's goals were clear. He wanted to enhance wildlife habitat while improving timber stands on his property. He said he was willing to supply the time, muscle and expense needed to implement any recommendations for his farm.

Solving the quail question

Heggemann has 20-plus years of wildlife management experience and had a good idea of why quail numbers were down on Kiefner's property.

"Two things really stood out," Heggemann said. "Mr. Kiefner had a lot of fescue and broomsedge in his fields. It was growing so thick, almost forming a sod, that it was inhibiting quail movement."

Quail need less dense vegetation at the ground level to remain safely hidden from predators as they feed and travel.

"I also thought that nearby woody cover could be thicker," Heggemann said. "For quail, you really need a dense brush cover such as thick briar and brush tangles right next to the grassy areas where they feed. They use the cover as a covey headquarters, for nesting and protecting the brood when they are not out feeding."

Heggemann suggested beating back some of that fescue and opening up some bare ground between the grassy stands by means of controlled burning, strip discing and selective applications of herbicide.

To increase cover, he recommended cutting down some of the taller growth in the woody cover. The fallen treetops would provide hiding places, and briars would soon emerge, providing even more cover and concealment.

Thinning grassy areas and increasing nearby cover would benefit other wildlife as well, creating better nesting and brooding areas for turkey and increasing browse for deer.

"People often think food plots are the answer," Heggemann said, but it's what's between them that is most important."

Woods and water

Forest enhancement and water quality are tightly intertwined. That's why Rick Kammler, a resource forester now based in Fredericktown, and Brad Pobst, a fisheries management biologist from Jackson, suggested that Kiefner take steps to protect his stream bank and reduce soil erosion. Doing so would also improve water quality in the Little Whitewater River.

Both Kammler and Pobst suggested that Kiefner establish a riparian corridor, a band of vegetation along streambanks, to help hold the soil. They suggested field-side shrub cover along the corridor that would provide quail with hard-core cover.

"A riparian corridor protects streambanks and reduces erosion and the resulting siltation," Kammler said. "It also helps filter out nutrients and chemicals from field pastures before they can get into the water, and traps a lot of the gravel and debris that would otherwise be washed into the river during a flood."

Using maps of the property as well as on-the-ground surveys, Kiefner and Pobst determined how far from the river bank the riparian corridor should extend by marking the boundaries with white stakes. In all, 32 acres of Kiefner's property would be devoted to creating this natural filter along the meandering Little Whitewater River and its tributaries.

As part of the process of creating this boundary along the river, Kiefner ordered 10,000 black walnut and burr oak seedlings from the George O. White State Forest Nursery at Licking last fall. With 10 laborers planting seedlings at a rate of one every 12 seconds, the trees were all planted in one day last March.

In addition to providing assistance with the trees, Kammler and Pobst helped Kiefner enroll his land in the Conservation Reserve Program, (CRP) making him eligible to receive financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to convert acreage from agriculture for the benefit of wildlife and water quality.

Hard work means success

Although Kiefner benefited from the experience and education of Heggemann, Kammler and Pobst, his own efforts were key to making the project successful.

After planting the trees, for example, Kiefner had to control weeds around the seedlings.

"You can't just put the trees in the ground and walk away," Kammler said, "particularly on old crop ground. The most promising thing to me is that Ed is doing the right things with these plantings. He is committed to taking every step necessary to ensure the survival of these trees."

"This has been a lot of work," Kiefner said, "but I'm really encouraged by the changes that have taken place. The results of this effort are now beginning to show."

Getting assistance

In 2000, the Conservation Department formed the Private Land Services Division for the sole purpose of helping Missouri's 300,000 private landowners improve the quality of the woods, water or wildlife on their land.

A Conservation Department publication, "Private Land Services," provides an overview of current services and programs. It also contains guides to the restoration of natural communities like wetlands, prairies, glades, savannas and native vegetation.

This publication also tells you how to contact a Private Land Services representative near you.

Pick up a copy of "Private Land Services" at any Conservation Department office, or call the Department's central office at (573) 751-4115. For more information about the Conservation Reserve Program, contact your local Farm Service Agency office.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer