By Clint Dalbom, Missouri State University
Research on the Journagan Ranch shows that quail flourish where adequate escape cover exists. Escape cover is often the very most limiting factor on private property today in the Ozarks. Bobwhite quail hold a position in the overall food chain that is not to be envied. Many native and introduced predators (feral cats) are constantly threatening the survival of every quail. If the quail do not have thick cover to escape into, we can all guess what happens to the poor bobwhite quail.
If landowners could focus on this one basic habitat need, escape cover, bobwhite quail could possibly increase their numbers in the Ozarks. This escape cover must be different than what we think of as “covey headquarters” or “covey loafing areas”. These type habitats are important too, but quail need escape cover to be thick enough that a human cannot walk through or walk through with great difficulty. Several years ago, I owned a farm in Texas County. I focused on burning and managing the blackberry thickets on my property, within two years my rabbit population had sky rocketed along with the population of bobwhite quail. Prior to that I was mowing the thickets every year, removing this critical quail habitat need from the landscape. If escape cover is not present on your property quail cannot thrive or even exist there for long.
These following practices will help create ideal bobwhite quail habitat.
Edge feathering – creating a linear clear-cut along the edges where pastures meet the timber edges. As these areas “brush in” over the next few years they will create this thick, dense cover that bobwhite quail need.
Livestock exclusion fencing – 30-50 feet or more out away from the timber edge. By letting this area “brush in” over several years will create thick, dense cover.
Dropping cedars – in glade areas after a burn to help create good cover. The next burn will remove these from the landscape, so a manager must be willing to go back into the area after the next burn and repeat this step. In this case it is good to leave some of the bigger cedars on the site for this use. Re-establishing fire on the landscape also consumes the thick cover quail need to escape predators.
Fire – put fire on the landscape where possible. Establishing permanent burn lines that require minimum maintenance is a great time saver from year to year. Disking these burn lines in the late summer or early fall the seeding to winter wheat and turnips will provide early successional habitat, winter browse for wildlife and serve as an improved burn line the following spring. Since fire will be used every other year or three out of five years on a site. These food plot strips can be left untouched for two years for added wildlife benefit, such as nesting areas.
Brush-hogging – maintain a three-year interval on mowing or brush-hogging grazing pastures. This will leave an un-kept appearance to the property so one may have to “adjust their eye”. Focus on brush-hogging to prevent hardwood sprouts from taking over the pastures or regenerating into woodlands, instead of just making them look nice. Fire can also be used in these areas to recycle nutrients, remove thatch and oak sprouts, and reduce mowing and equipment wear. Landowners should always attend a burn workshop before attempting to conduct a prescribed fire.
Warm season grass – establish more areas of native warm season grass. These grasses provide more nesting structure and allow quail improved nesting and brood rearing results. In a cattle ranch setting this will also have great benefits for grazing and/or haying use. Native warm season grass produces large volumes of forage with minimal fertilizer application. The haying season is also later in the summer, during a time of year that is more suited to mowing and baling hay. The spring rains are over and the climate in Missouri generally dries out.
Managed grazing – One of the most important things a manager can do is increase management of grazing lands. In the project at Journagan Ranch we have created good clean water supplies for the livestock. Strategically placed on the landscape to allow for paddock type grazing. Keeping the grass vegetative and growing can increase forage production drastically. Keeping a mosaic of grass heights on the landscape will ensure there is something available for wildlife needs all season long.
Fencing – on a rugged terrain can pose several issues, cost and time are two that come to my mind on top of the list, followed very closely by maintenance. On the Journagan Ranch we have chosen high-tensile electric fencing. These are charged by a low impedance 12-volt electric fence charger. A 2ft x 2ft solar panel that charges a deep cycle marine battery have been installed at various points as needed. These systems have proven to be very durable with limited problems. Trees down on the fence can be removed and the wire jumps up to the original position. Grounding the fencer is very important. Following the directions on the charger is critical in maintaining a “hot’ fence.
Maintaining legumes – legumes and forbs are important for quail by producing insects. Quail chicks need a high protein food to maintain rapid growth. Insects provide that food. Legumes are also very nutritious for livestock and help improve feed value of grass forage. Deer, turkeys and other wildlife species also benefit from having a good mix of legumes in the pastures and hayfields
These practices will not only help the “bobwhite” whistle hopefully become more common on the cattle land but should also improve the land for cattle as well. I have heard that “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and good quail habitat isn’t either. Quail numbers have been declining for a long time, so it may take a long time to bring them back. If we can keep an eye on the future, make sound management decisions that include wildlife habitat, then maybe a quail hunt on a crisp November morning can be in our future. Bobwhite quail are very prolific, if we do our job, they will do theirs.
For more information, please contact Clint Dalbom, Conservation Project Coordinator, Missouri State University, 573-247-0430.