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DIY Quail Management: Thickets

“You have to learn to love the training, make friends with the training.”

I got to know more about quail by learning to trap them than by any other method. If I were to develop a “boot camp” for budding quail managers, the graduation would include 3 or 4 weeks of quail trapping … and no one unsuccessful in catching quail would graduate.

Unlike foxes or raccoons quail don’t find food by smell. To catch them, the traps have to be exactly where quail are by nature. And during winter, if you are not getting scratched by briers, having your clothes torn by shrub thorns, or generally bent over in some contorted fashion when setting those traps – you surely are guaranteed to catch nothing but air.

Thickets Critical for Bobwhites

I can’t overstate the need for thickets, especially during winter, to support quail through time. Why talk about winter and thickets during the 100 degree heat of July? I hear so manyThicket of Winged Sumac landowners tell me, “Marc we had quail calling in here all summer, but when hunting season came in they were nowhere to be found.”  “Ah, ha!,”  I think to myself.  Without even looking at your land, I already have a vision of what’s missing.

But there is much more to quail management, so where do we start in this learning process?

First –as a quail biologist or as a landowner, you have to be able to not just see land, but to envision it. Set aside all else, for if you don’t develop a knack for seeing the land and envisioning its potential, all the techniques in the world will be of little use to you.

When I first found myself in the position of training new biologists, I thought, “I have been at this so long, how can I possibly convey all this information without overwhelming someone?” The first and best rule is this: in the education of a new quail biologist, or landowner, don’t get overly bogged down in detail.

There is a basic suite of management opportunities on a high percentage of properties in any given eco-region. Using the Southern Piedmont of Virginia as an example, we find an average farm consists of some fescue pasture and hay lands, some hardwood timber, some loblolly pine timber, and maybe some row crop (wheat, corn or soybean) fields. Occasionally there’s a tobacco field thrown in the mix, but these are the basics.

Within each category is a subset of conditions and special management considerations. But the first big step is being able to see those basic opportunities for management. Once the “normal” setting becomes familiar, the next step is to break down each category into its sub-set of conditions and begin learning how to manage each of them.

How do we manage loblolly pines for example? Within this category we find 1) newly planted pines in young cut-overs, 2) pines in the pre-commercial stage of mid-rotation, 3) pines in the stage for first thinning, 4) thinned pine stands ready for prescribed fire, and so on.

And what about fescue hay fields? We find some that have been well managed for hay, thick and lush, others we see are spotty and mixed with various native and non-native grasses and forbs, and some may have declined to the point where they are considered “old fields,” i.e. having some good cover, but still under grown with fescue. The main point is by starting with some basic categories, we take the complex and establish a simple framework for learning.

July Habitat Tips: Build Thickets for Bobwhites

Back to thickets… quail need about 15% to 25% of their range to be in thicket cover. Thickets consist of things like blackberry, plum, sumac, greenbrier, etc. averaging about 6 feet tall, and with enough stem density to provide escape cover. A good general size is 30’ x 50’, with 50’ x 50’ probably better.

Field Edge CutOne of the quickest ways to establish thickets is to cut down some low value trees along a field edge. One thicket about every 100 yards around a field’s edge is a good starting point. Things like sweet gum, red maple, and others can be dropped out into a field and left. The songbirds will do the rest. They perch in the trees, generate seed filled droppings and within a year you’ll have instant covey headquarters areas with no more cost than the gas and time it took to run a chainsaw.  

For the bold and serious landowner – this technique can also be applied throughout an entire field by dragging some of the cut trees out into the field in a random pattern. You can spend a ton of time and money buying and planting shrubs, but there is really no need to.

“Sounds good, but how do we manage these things through time?”

Though a lot of good cover will grow up in the thickets, you’ll also start to get trees encroaching …and we don’t want our thickets to grow back into tall trees. Perhaps the best way is by spot spraying. If you have a tractor, or 4-wheeler, a good spray rig can be purchased. These usually come with spray boom and wand attachments. It is amazing how much can be done by one person and a good spray wand.

Select herbicides to maximize control of the hardwoods in question – things like sweetgum, red maple and poplar. Generally speaking, a product containing triclopyr will do the job. But a conversation with your biologist can help clarify options. The products most often used can be purchased over the counter and are not restricted use pesticides, meaning you do not have to have a certification to apply them.

A good time to do this spraying is in late summer, before trees start to go dormant. Simply apply herbicide to cover the foliage of undesired plants using care to minimize contact withBackpack Sprayers beneficial plants. Some loss of good plants will occur, but not enough to worry over. By spraying at this time of year, the trees soon begin transporting nutrients and energy into their roots for winter – and along with the nutrients, the herbicides you have applied. This allows the herbicides to work on those root systems all winter long. Caution: don’t spray during a drought because transport of herbicides into the roots will be minimal.

If you don’t have a large budget, a back-pack sprayer can be used with great effect. There are several basic types: 1) piston; 2) diaphragm; and 3) a combination of the two. The piston style is usually cheapest, and for using mild herbicides is completely safe. Most good brands can be purchased at home improvement or farm supply stores for $125.00 – $225.00. Pistons can fail while in use, however, and when they do, you’ll get a dose of whatever is being sprayed down your back. This isn’t a big deal if using mild herbicides, but if your sprayer will double as an insecticide applicator, you will want to invest in a diaphragm, or combination diaphragm / piston sprayer. Both are less likely to leak if they fail in the field.

Of course chain sawing, and/or saw head weed eaters, can work, too. This depends on your back, your time and your gumption. A word to the wise, if you are going to go to the trouble of cutting down encroaching hardwoods, plan to treat the cut stumps with an herbicide right after cutting. This insures the root will be killed and you won’t be back cutting this same tree’s stump sprouts 2 or 3 years from now. Ideally, this is a tandem job, one person cuts and one person treats the cut stumps with the appropriate herbicide. Habitat work can be physically demanding, but you should learn to enjoy it. Something needs doing about every year and during all seasons. As the drill sergeants used to say in infantry boot camp, “you have to learn to love the training, make friends with the training.”

Marc Puckett

Photo by Meghan Marchetti, VDWR

Marc Puckett is a Small Game Project Leader with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (VDWR).

Marc has worked with VDWR for 25+ years. He currently serves as the small game project co-leader. He was involved in several quail studies, including for his master’s degree at NCSU. He served his country for four years in the US Army’s Airborne Infantry. Marc resides with his family on a farm in central Virginia.