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Food Plots for Game Bird Success

Austin Delano

wild turkey full strut

Two aspects of wildlife management that are growing rapidly are the restoration of native habitat and growing crops with game birds in mind. I am of the opinion that “loss of habitat” may be the number one factor (on a list of many reasons) for the steady decline in quail numbers over the past several decades. Turkeys on the other hand, have had remarkable success rebounding from low numbers at the turn of the 20th century and are now abundant across most of the U.S.

Whether you are trying to attract turkeys and hold them on your property, lure in pheasants for the hunting season or attempting to provide food and cover for a couple coveys of quail, there are several easy-to-plant annual crops that will benefit any game bird. Millets, sorghum, and sunflowers are all easy-to-plant warm season annuals that can be planted as stand-alone crops or in a blend like BioLogic’s WhistleBack. A lot of people want to plant something that will provide food within a couple weeks like they do for deer, but it really doesn’t work that way for birds. For game birds, we are really trying to create the type of food, cover and brood habitat they seek out. Giving the birds all they need through the changing seasons will keep them at home and discourage them from wandering to neighboring properties.
Warm-season annuals such as the previous mentioned millets, sorghum, etc., need 70-100 days of growth to mature and produce seed. As the plants mature and dry during the late summer and into the fall, they will naturally begin to drop seeds. The maturity rate is obviously largely dependent on what varieties are used, and of course weather also plays a factor. These warm-season annuals are relatively easy to grow and can be planted by broadcasting onto a prepared seedbed or by using a no-till drill or planter.  I prefer a no-till drill for bird plots for a couple of reasons. The rows make it easy for smaller game birds like pheasants or quail to navigate through, drills also disturb the soil considerably less than using a disk or tiller and as a result you will usually have fewer weed problems.
sunflowersIf using traditional planting methods, I would suggest spraying the area to be planted a week to ten days ahead of planting to kill all existing vegetation with a non-selective herbicide such as Roundup. Once the vegetation is dead the soil can then be disked or tilled and then cultipacked or rolled to create a firm seed bed. Seed can then be broadcast and lightly dragged-in or rolled back over with a cultipacker.  

A 6.0-7.0 pH is needed for optimum growth and seed production; however, millets, sorghums, and sunflowers are fairly tolerant of acidic soils, allowing you to plant for your birds in areas with less than ideal soil conditions. Fertilize according to soil test recommendations, or in absence of a soil test, use 13-13-13 at around 300 lbs. per acre or an equivalent. Most of these seed varieties are "nitrogen lovers" and will benefit in growth and seed production if a secondary nitrogen application is implemented 4-6 weeks after germination.

A more long-term way to provide the life cycle needs and improve habitat for birds is by using native warm season grasses and plants. A great blend is Mossy Oak Nativ Nurseries Bedding Blend. It contains Big Bluestem, Indian Grass, Maximillian Sunflower, Switch Grass, New England Aster, Virginia Wild Rye, and Partridge Pea. These native grasses and plants not only provide great nesting cover and feeding areas, but also attract insects which are crucial to a young bird’s diet. The bunch grasses provide open areas on the ground which makes it easy for young birds to traverse.

You don’t need to plant large acreage for your birds for this to be effective. Strips along the sides of roads, perimeters of large food plots or small clearings in the woods all make suitable locations to plant for your birds. Another big upside to planting game bird habitat is almost all other forms of wildlife will also benefit from it.

If you want to take your wildlife management to the next level, consider planting some areas specifically for your birds to improve your property’s overall diversity. Even though you may only currently have an occasional covey of quail, there is no better way to help them multiply than by creating the food, cover and nesting areas they may be missing.

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