Brood Habitat is Key to Better Turkey and Quail Hunting
By Dennis Daniels, NWTF Mid-South director of conservation operations
It’s all about reproduction
Enhancing brood habitat for ground-nesting birds by creating “brood strips” to enhance native plant growth can improve food availability for wild turkey poults and bobwhite quail chicks, and increase survival during the critical first few weeks of life. Good wild turkey and quail populations depend on it, and quality hunting depends on good reproduction.
We spend countless hours and plenty of money planting food plots and planning improvements to attract wildlife. Unfortunately, many plans miss an essential ingredient to ensure healthy bird populations — quality brood habitat. The better the habitat we provide for poults and chicks, the more adult turkeys and quail will survive. Predators find it tougher to prey on turkey and quail broods when the habitat provides good escape cover. Maintaining more acres of brood habitat widens the area predators have to search, reducing their success at finding those tender morsels.
Techniques for brood success
Mowing, disking, prescribed fire and herbicide application are some of the techniques commonly used to improve conditions in fallow overgrown brushy fields or in native grass fields that are just too thick for hens with poults to use.
Mowing and disking grassy fields, when properly timed, decrease plant density, increase spots of bare ground and improve the insect population. When thick sod is reduced and patches of bare ground are created, it allows better access to insects for young birds, while maintaining protection from predators. Mowing should also be timed so that it does not coincide with nesting, obviously to prevent mortality.
For example, take a field of goldenrod or what some would describe as a weed patch, and mow a 10-yard strip around the edge to encourage lush vegetation providing food, visibility and easy walking for hens. Follow the mowing with light disking to reduce the thickness of the vegetation and make it possible for young birds to maneuver through. Mowing and disking can be done during the growing season but the timing of disking can be critical in determining the type of vegetation that responds to the disturbance. Brush-hogging and disking between late December and late March in the south, and March through early May in the north, will encourage ragweed, native forbs and grasses and associated species, providing a good food source and cover for quail. Mowing the field edges can be repeated during the growing season once poults and chicks are mobile.
Some like it hot!
Fire should be applied to warm-season grass stands every three to five years. After a winter prescribed fire, heavy disking will reduce the ground cover and encourage the growth of forbs and desirable weeds. Controlled burning of fallow or brushy fields is perfect for improving brood habitat, especially when mowing is not feasible due to extensive brush growth. A good burn can result in the growth of more native plant species and create more brood habitat for turkey poults and other birds and animals than expensive work with heavy equipment. Burning costs vary widely; from about $5 per acre if you do the site preparation and burning yourself, to more than $25 per acre if burning is done by a private contractor.
Burning is an excellent management practice in terms of controlling brush and exotic species and generating more beneficial plants. It is also less expensive than other alternatives. Despite popular, yet misguided notions, many plant species have evolved with fire and respond well to its occurrence. Not only does burning reduce the accumulation of dead plant material and recycle nutrients, it also stimulates vigorous plant growth along with fruit and seed production. Although burning must be done every few years, once a plan is in place, the most difficult part of burning is finding a day with the right weather conditions. Additionally, in some areas, burning has become less feasible because of liability and air-quality issues.
Consult with your local wildlife biologist to determine your options for burning and including it as part of a written wildlife management plan.
Liquid solutions to burning issues
If burning is not feasible, the application of herbicides is another alternative for vegetation control and enhancing the growth of native plants. A popular choice is a selective herbicide such as Arsenal with the active ingredient imazapyr. Specifically recommended for establishing and maintaining wildlife openings, this selective herbicide controls unwanted hardwood brush and permits beneficial food plants for wildlife to prosper. Combined with periodic prescribed fire, high-quality wildlife habitat can be created and maintained.
Many legumes, like lespedeza and partridge pea, tolerate the herbicide and continue to grow. Other plants such as morning glory and wild geranium quickly regenerate after its use. Seed-bearing plants produce heavier and more nutritious seeds in the absence of competitive brush, and flowering plants are able to thrive, attracting an abundance of insects-insects, which provide food for many bird species including wild turkey poults.
The cost per acre of using herbicide depends on how dense the brush is. A moderate amount of brush, which would be about 500 rootstocks per acre, requires three to five gallons of spray, representing about $20 of herbicide. A one-time application can last seven to 10 years, making this also a very cost-effective choice. In addition, because you’re encouraging the growth of native food plants, you’ll spend less on supplemental food plots. Unlike prescribed fire, however, herbicides will not reduce the amount of dead wood (a natural fuel for wild fires) in the forest nor recycle nutrients to the soil.
As one of the most environmentally compatible herbicide ingredients on the market, imazapyr works on an enzyme that exists only in plants, not in wildlife, insects, aquatic life or humans. This active ingredient is available in several product brands available to landowners and managers.
Plots and strips
Planting cereal grains in strips also can provide broods with food and cover. Take a 10-acre field, divide it into thirds and plant a third in annuals such as buckwheat, wheat, oats, grain sorghum, chufa or even corn. Plant another third of the field in a legume mix, and allow the remaining third to remain fallow or plant it in warm-season grasses and forbs.
Manage the fallow section or warm-season grass section by mowing, burning or disking and rotate the crops in the annual planting section. Converting the fallow section to a native warm season grass is an excellent long-term solution to creating perennial brood habitat for turkeys, quail and other upland birds. The NWTF now offers regional warm season grass seed mixes that are designed to improve turkey and upland bird habitat by providing both food and cover for nesting hens and developing poults and chicks. These seed mixes, along with other land management products can be found at www.OutdoorDealHound.com.
Borders around crop fields or hay fields are also great places for raising broods. Any kind of mowing or light disking or disturbance in an orchard, vineyard or between rows of planted trees is another good approach to improving brood habitat. This can be done on Christmas tree farms, planted pines or even a tree nursery.