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Controlling Hardwood Brush In Quail Habitat

They are out there! In your fields, day and night, these enemies are slowly but surely are eating away at the fabric of your hard fought efforts to have quail this fall and winter. No, I am not talking about predators; I am referring to sod-grasses and hardwood brush.

Each day the sun rises and puts in motion one of the many biochemical miracles of creation, photosynthesis. Besides protective cover, this process produces the fundamentals quail need both directly (berries) and indirectly (bugs). However, this same process will give aid to the enemy if you let it. In the coastal plain of the southeast the common enemies are often cherry trees, laurel oaks, and bermuda grass. In the Piedmont regions they would more likely be sweetgum and fescue grass. Bahai grass is another enemy common to both regions.

If you have gone to the effort and expense to develop quail habitat, you should view every acre as a cherished possession and be prepared to defend it against those factors that will naturally try to rob you of it. I have seen several projects where the quail fields have gone from excellent to poor over a six year period, simply because brush and sod-grasses were ignored until they finally resulted in unproductive hunting.

I believe it is the American Cancer Society that has a saying, the best prevention is early detection. This is also true in dealing with the long term health of your quail land. Why do I consider hardwood brush and sod-grasses to be enemies? Let me explain.

Quail prefer a mixture of growth that is present during years one through three after the harrowing or burning of a field. This setting provides weeds, shrubs, and native grasses necessary for the annual production of cover, nesting areas, and food production. Some small pockets of woody brush in such a setting are good for escape cover, but left unchecked they grow into scattered pockets of hardwood trees. At this point your “escape cover” is no longer an asset, but a liability. These trees with a massive and thirsty root system, divert moisture needed for the growth of “quail plants”. As the trees grow larger, they will also begin to offer concealment for hawks and owls while they go grocery shopping for your birds.

Now that we’ve identified the problem, what can we do about it? First, let’s hold the hardwood brush at bay.

Fire is the best place to start. A match is cheaper than a bulldozer when properly used. Break up your quail area into smaller blocks (30 to 50 acres if practical), using permanent firebreaks. During late winter, burn a block and skip a block. The next year burn the blocks you skipped and skip the ones you burned.

If you have a network of small fields, you may want to surround the field with a break and then burn half of it one year and the other half the next. If you have good habitat to start with, this is the most efficient method to keep it that way.

After a few years pass, almost every tract will have a spot here and there where fire just didn’t do the job. These are usually areas that were really wet during the burning season and the fire just didn’t get hot enough to kill the brush. In this case you may desire to chop these areas with a Lawson drum chopper or mow them with a brush cutting mower. Once the area has been chopped or mowed, fire can often keep the problem under control.

However, if you are like most people, you have put off brush control too long. The brush has now become small trees that are preventing the sunlight from reaching the forest floor during the year. Thus, there is not enough fuel present to generate sufficient heat to kill the brush . This means that you have to spend more money to solve the problem. Chemical control, using a forest herbicide, is the answer in such a situation. Depending on the severity of the problem, chemical application can vary from spot treatment using a four-wheeler and small chemical tank, to spraying the entire area from a helicopter. The advantage of using chemicals is it takes out brush root systems. After using this technique you can then return to the more economical method of burning.

One suggestion regarding large area applications is to use a reputable chemical service. He will figure out the best forest herbicide to use for your site and soil type. He should also give you a guarantee. That means if the results are not up to snuff, he will retreat the area at no cost to you. In recent years I have found it cheaper to treat larger areas with services that use a helicopter rather than ground application equipment. So don’t rule out a helicopter before checking the cost.

Now to combat our other foe. The same vigilance should be taken concerning encroachment by sod-grasses, such as common bermuda, coastal bermuda, bahia grass and fescue. All of these are introduced grasses that can spread like a cancer in quail fields. As these sod-forming grasses spread, they choke out the native forbes (weeds) and native warm season grasses desired by quail. The main difference between controlling brush and controlling sod-grasses is that fire alone will not kill even the smallest patches.

In the case of sod-grasses, I would go straight to the chemical tank. There have been numerous articles written concerning the use of chemicals to treat sod-grasses so I won’t go into much detail here except to make this one point. Just as with the hardwood brush, if you get an early start you can keep sod-grass invasions out of your fields a lot cheaper that you can eradicate them later.

Remember that true wildlife management is just that, Management!

This means we are manipulating (tweaking) the habitat to keep it productive for the critter we desire to manage. Nature is marching on and continually changing the landscape over time, from one habitat type to another until either natural (i.e. wildfires) or man-made forces (i.e. control burning) set it back.

We need to be good stewards of the acres we have left to manage for wildlife. The “spin off” benefits of good quail habitat enhance the survival not only for quail, but for everything from butterflies to pitcher plants. So whether you are managing your land for native quail, early released quail or both, remember habitat management is the foundation you must build on for success. Good quail land, like freedom, doesn’t come with one victory. You have to keep fighting those things that are trying to take it from you. It is easier to maintain it than it is to lose it and have to start all over.

For more information about controlling brush and sod-grass, you may want to obtain the new DVD, “Managing Quail Fields”. For more information, CLICK HERE.