Friday, February 3, 2017

Doing nothing? Not a Good Decision if You Want Bobwhite Quail

Doing nothing? Not a Good Decision if You Want Bobwhite Quail

By Arlo Kane, Regional Coordinator, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Landowner Assistance Program

Bobwhite quail are referred to as an “early successional” species. But what does that mean in the context of a longleaf pine ecosystem? Succession is an ecological progression from a community with only a few species of plants and animals to an increasingly more complex system ending in a climax stage. The longleaf pine forest represents the climax stage but one maintained by disturbance.  Fire is generally that disturbance, or in the absence of fire something else will replace the longleaf forest.  Historically the longleaf-wiregrass ecosystem was more of a savanna maintained by frequent fire.  Fire created the open pine savanna allowing grassland birds to thrive. Bobwhite quail, and species such as brown-headed nuthatch, Bachman’s sparrow, Southeastern American kestrel and grasshopper sparrow, are more abundant in these open pine-grassland habitats.

However bobwhite quail are somewhat unique in this group in that they spend most of their time on the ground, where they forage for seeds, greens and insects and fly only short distances and then only when necessary.  Bobwhite quail depend on the early weedy stage of succession. They also require open bare ground on which to forage for seeds and for chicks to be able to move around easily.  Where wiregrass is not an issue or pasture grasses like bahia and Bermuda have taken over, disking strips can be an effective way to set back succession and increase bare ground as well as promote the growth of weedy vegetation.  Grasses provide seeds for quail to eat, as well as nesting material, and weeds also provide seeds and attract insects. Insects are the key protein source that breeding hens and young chicks need for nutrition. Fire is also an important practice to set back succession, and habitats that go longer than three years without fire can become too thick with understory vegetation for quail to thrive.  Depending on the habitat, quail prefer a one to two year burning frequency -- which also helps reduce the risk of wildfires on your property.

But what if you have an existing pine stand, longleaf or otherwise, planted at a high density?  Can anything be done to benefit bobwhite quail in that scenario? Well, bobwhite quail are not a forest bird. While you may see them sometimes along the edge of a dense forest, they will not be numerous and they will not be found within a dense forest. Generally the only forests where you will find populations of quail are those with a low density of pines. We define how dense a forest is by looking at the basal area. That is the area occupied by a tree if you were to cut it at about 4.5 feet above the ground and determine the surface area of the stump. Then figure that out for all the trees on an acre and add them up.  Fortunately we can quickly estimate that by use of a prism.  A forest with a lower number of trees and more open structure suitable for quail should have a basal area of 30-50 ft2.  Forests with a basal area of 50-70 ft2 would still be suitable but once you have a basal area above that you are too dense to really support bobwhite quail.  At that point you really need to look at thinning your pines to at least a basal area of 50 ft2.

So what can you do to manage bobwhite quail in a longleaf pine ecosystem? First, do something. Doing nothing will lead to later stages of succession that will change the habitat from one beneficial to quail to one beneficial to other species. Second, burn on a frequent basis. In most habitats, you can burn on a one to two year rotation. In productive habitats, you start to lose quail habitat at about three years. The exception would be sandhills habitat, where you may not be able to burn more than once every five years due to a lack of fuel.  Third, if your timber is too dense, and the time is right, consider thinning to a 50 or 60 basal area. Fourth, if you do not have wiregrass you may want to consider disking strips to increase bare ground and stimulate the growth of weedy vegetation. Fifth, along agricultural and forest borders consider putting in a field border of grasses and herbaceous flowering plants (such as indian grass, little bluestem, broomsedge, and partridge pea) to create a feathered edge effect. Quail are most abundant in these edge habitats.

Bobwhites have experienced an 82 percent population decline in Florida since 1966. Much of that decline is associated with millions of acres of open pine savannas being converted to high density commercial pine plantations that provide no bobwhite habitat. Combine that with a lack of frequent prescribed burning and an increase in mid-story hardwoods, and you have a recipe for bobwhite disaster. Magazine articles often rail against hawks, coyotes, fire ants, herbicides, pesticides or any other predator or practice they can point the finger at to say they are the cause. But I think the loss of our once diverse tenant farms and conversion of those farms to dense commercial pine plantations or large monoculture farms, combined with a lack of frequent fire, is probably closer to the truth.  Not that predators don’t play a role, but I just don’t think they are the major factor in any decline. I worked for a time in south Texas where we had lots of fire ants, coyotes, hawks and any other predator you can think of.  But I saw a rancher apply some very good habitat management techniques to open up the understory and produce three birds per acre.  That’s three times as many quail as was once thought to be the maximum density you could produce. Good habitat management that focuses on prescribed burning, thinning, bush management, hedge rows, field border, and mechanical disturbance will go a long way to helping recover bobwhite quail in the southeastern U.S.

When thinking about managing for bobwhite quail, it’s not always about planting longleaf, it’s more about managing existing longleaf pine forests, rangelands and agricultural lands. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has created the Working Lands For Wildlife – Northern Bobwhite Project to help landowners who want to create or manage existing habitat for bobwhite quail. Financial assistance is available to eligible landowners to implement practices such as prescribed burning, thinning, brush management, hedgerows and field borders.

Want to help restore bobwhite quail to the Southeast? Contact your local NRCS District Conservationist or a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Landowner Assistance Program biologist for more information. You can meet north Florida landowners restoring longleaf pine habitat who are starting to see bobwhite quail as a result in the video, Private Landowners Conserving Florida Wildlife.


You can reach Arlo Kane with questions at 850-767-3616.


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