CONNECTING FOR QUAIL
HOW COOPERATIVE HABITAT MANAGEMENT CAN BRING BACK THE BOBWHITE
"Co-ops are an excellent model for implementing bobwhite management at a large scale because they are often made up of multiple chunks of land with different owners working toward the same goals."
dr. mark McConnell
Bobwhite management is relatively simple in concept but can be challenging to implement. The challenge comes from the manpower and time commitment required to achieve success at an observable level. Basic bobwhite management can be boiled down to a simple recipe: create and maintain 1/3rd of the property in annual forbs, 1/3rd in native warm season grasses, and 1/3rd in shrub cover. This can be accomplished with some basic tools most co-ops already have available to them: a drip torch, a disk and most importantly, manpower. Bobwhite need open areas with lots of sunlight - thus dense overstocked forests won’t cut it. In forested systems relatively low tree density and a diversity of vegetation on the forest floor is necessary to even have a chance. After that it’s just a simple matter of disturbing that vegetation in the right way. Mowing is NOT a good idea, but disking and burning are. So if, for example, you’ve got a 1,000 acre cooperative consisting of mostly thinned pine trees, simply implementing prescribed fire on ~1/3rd of that acreage every year would get you headed in the right direction. Similarly, on your ‘odd areas’ like roadsides, logging decks, trails, etc., you can use the same disk you used for food plots to do some Fall disking, which will help stimulate forbs like common ragweed and partridge pea producing good brooding areas for bobwhite. These tasks themselves are easy but time consuming. Burning alone requires a great deal of time and manpower to do it safely and effectively. But what about shrub cover? This is one of the most overlooked components of bobwhite management. Bobwhite need shrub cover to stay warm and dry but also to stay out of trouble (from predators). Plum, dogwood, blackberry and sumac thickets are some of the more common plants bobwhite will use as shrub cover so if you’ve got some of these, keep them around and plant more! The key to bobwhite management is having everything they need (forbs, grasses, shrubs) all in close proximity. If a bobwhite has to travel from one end of your co-op to the other (or worse - to the neighboring property not connected to your co-op) to find a good place to brood chicks (annual forbs), build a nest (native warm-season grass) or hide from a Cooper’s Hawk (shrub cover), it isn’t going to live very long. Some of this management can be expensive and all of it requires a lot of work. But that’s exactly why co-ops are the perfect model for bobwhite management! Co-op members spend a lot of money and time on management already. The great thing about co-ops is that this time and energy is shared by all members. So with some minor tweaks to management activities, co-op members can share the expense and the energy to create bobwhite habitat.
Co-ops are often made of neighboring properties that share at least some management goals (ex, harvesting quality white-tailed deer) but shared goals don’t have to stop there. Most people enjoy hearing and seeing bobwhite but few take steps to increase bobwhite on their acreage. When the topic of bobwhites comes up, you will be surprised how much enthusiasm there is for what was once called the Prince of Gamebirds! So take action, talk to your co-op members and develop a plan of shared responsibility and shared reward. Bobwhite respond very well to management but even better to management across multiple properties. Co-ops have the potential to become bobwhite havens. It just takes passion and commitment from multiple landowners working towards the same goal.
About the Author:
Dr. Mark McConnell
Mississippi State University
Assistant Professor, Upland Birds and Prairie Conservation
If you regularly encounter or hear northern bobwhite on your cooperative it is most likely a result of the active habitat management you and your fellow members have conducted. Whereas bobwhites used to be an accidental byproduct of land use decisions, those days are over considering most modern land use practices (intensive farming, short-rotation pine, exotic forage grasses for grazing, fire exclusion, etc.) create a hostile landscape for bobwhite. As a result, bobwhite populations have declined considerably over the last several decades. So if you’ve still got them, you’re doing something right! But don’t open the champagne and celebrate yet - your work has just begun! Once your foot is on the pedal, you can’t let off. Momentum is the driving force of bobwhite management and once momentum is lost, it can be very hard to recover.
Now, the next thing I’m going to tell you may seem counterintuitive: If you want more bobwhite on your cooperative, get your neighboring landowners to conduct bobwhite management. You might be thinking that will pull birds off your property onto theirs, and it very well might, but that is actually a good thing. As a general rule, the more collective acreage with quail-friendly habitat the better off the population will be in the long run. Bobwhite management can rarely be done alone. Birds that exist in isolated properties surrounded by a hostile landscape don’t tend to last very long. I’ll often hear people say, ‘we had quail for a little while after we did some burning but they were gone in few years’. Once I ask what the properties around theirs looks like, the answer becomes clear - there simply wasn’t enough quail habitat to sustain them. Keeping bobwhite on the landscape requires a lot of acres of quail habitat. But it doesn’t all have to be in one block or with one owner. Several properties of varying size can work together to create a quail friendly landscape. Co-ops are an excellent model for implementing bobwhite management at a large scale because they are often made up of multiple chunks of land with different owners working toward the same goals. When used strategically, co-ops can work together to provide basic habitat needs for bobwhite across both forested and agricultural systems.