After several years of study, walking through and driving by grassland habitat (notice that I don’t specify warm-season grass, set-aside, cool season grass, hayfield, brushy field, etc.), talking with hunters, land owners and even many upland bird researchers and biologists, I have come to the following conclusion that may be overly obvious to many and not so clear to others: active management is required on every acre. What do I mean by active management, you might ask? There are many answers to that question which vary depending on what habitat features are in and around the area.Thisincludes: food, water, and shelter with space enough to acquire all three of these habitat features.
Many landowners have in interest in quail and other upland game. Shelter is a very important aspect of upland game habitat (I’m not saying that the other factors are less important, but commonly they are not the limiting resource). Shelter provides cover from snow, rain, wind, and sun, a place to hide from predators, nesting sites (birds are picky about these sites), and a place for us and our dogs to find birds while hunting! So, are you putting enough emphasis on shelter? You may ask, “What is shelter? Is it shrubs, grass, trees, briar patches, or undisturbed fence rows?” It is all of these things and various combinations of each. The wind/weather changes direction and predators come from any direction, so the more variety of shelter available, the better. How do we maximize shelter and other habitat components for bobwhite quail and other upland wildlife? The answer is management.
Mid-contract management practices are required for acreage enrolled in a government program such as the USDA Farm Service Agency-Conservation Reserve Program, but they can be applied to other land. Practices including disking, burning, or spraying herbicides can increase plant species and structural diversity. I suggest that it is equally important to manage all the acres within a habitat (think big scale- your farm plus each neighbor on all borders) in order to make big changes. Focus on managing your acres to provide what your neighbors may not be focused on.
As I expand upon the “conclusion” that I mentioned earlier, here are three goals/challenges that landowners may work towards. Active management is required on every acre, but as land stewards: 1) we do our best to keep clean and tidy patches of ground, 2) we try to have all components of habitat on our propertyusing past knowledge and resources, and 3) we want instant changes. In the next few paragraphs I will try to explain what I mean by these three goals.
I’m guilty too; I really like to see a nice and even height in a native grass stand with crisp fire breaks installed. What we see is different from what wildlife sees– upland game species don’t like things nice and tidy – habitat that is irregular and haphazardly situated can provide some of the best conditions.As I mentioned earlier, the need for various forms and scattered arrangement of cover is very important. However, some areas of bare ground, and I would like to reiterate that this doesn’t mean you need to provide an acre of bare earth, but rather some areas of visible ground when looking down through the cover. The areas of grass that are less dense than others are important, especially for young birds. I suggest that a square field can be turned into 4 or more areas of different height, densities,and many types of vegetation (areas of grass, some areas of briars, some areas with shrubs, etc). Being too tidy isn’t a good thing but it can help with management practices. It is recommended that you don’t let everything grow up into brush and trees so thick you can’t walk through it. Along the same lines, if your prescribed burn doesn’t turn the whole field black- that is not always a bad thing! An incomplete burn adds structure and diversity to the field.
We have the ability to plant grass, food plots, trees and shrubs; dig ditches and install ponds; and we know how to identify and do our best to kill invasive species. There are great resources and workshops available to help teach landowners how to identify plant species, both native and invasive. As a landowner you will want to have the resources to aid you in cultivating this skill of identifyingplant species. We do all that we can to provide everything upland game species need (what we think of are food, water and cover), but we still don’t experience many birds or rabbits. What are we doing wrong? Maybe the grass cover isn’t limiting, or perhaps, the small stream on the west edge of the property has more than enough water which could show signs that the pond isn’t necessary for increasing wildlife. The challenge may lie with not having enough brushy cover, or you might have brushy cover but it is only on the edges of the 40 acre field, which is a commonly big issue. We need to gather data and study the land by walking, and driving, around the area to see what is truly missing within the habitat (again, think big- more than just your farm) and work towards providing those aspects of habitat.
As children we all have experienced adults telling us to be patient and to practice being patient. Be Patient! Changes in habitat take time to establish and birds won’t just appear the next year. As the saying goes: if you build it, they will come (as long as there is wildlife left in the area- you would be surprised where birds are). I will continue to share with landowners a tip that I share often: focus on what is missing in the area, not just on planting grass for example. Upland game prefers early successional habitat- areas dominated by grasses, but with scattered shrubs and trees. I once heard a biologist say that the ideal quail habitat has a shrub, scrubby tree, and/or briar patch within the distance you can throw a soda-can from any point in the field. In order for this to be the case, careful management to get this brush to grow takes time, even years. The same holds true if you are trying to establish native warm-season grasses (3 years minimum). The trick to management is that you have to be willing to be patient for the results to show up, and then once they do happen, be willing to complete the management activity that best promotes and maintains what you were planning and finally achieved.
The combination of tools such as, but not limited to, prescribed fire, mowers, chainsaws, sprayers, herbicides, disk/tiller, atv/utv, tractor, shovel, rake, no-till drills, broadcast spreaders, etc. need to be part of your yearly plans for the habitat you manage. I can’t stress the word “combination” enough – mix, match, and pair up management activities. There are no cookie cutter solutions to habitat management, but you should implement management practices that help you develop what is missing within the area (remember to think big!). If your acreage is enrolled within a program, talk with your local extension educator, NRCS, SWCD, FSA and DNR staff to develop management plans to help you achieve these goals through the use of the allowable practices under your specific contract. Even if your acreage isn’t enrolled in a cost share program, I suggest that all land owners should take advantage of the expertise that local extension educators, private consultants, and government agency personnel have been trained to do and are very willing to provide. Good luck! Get out there and have fun as you will enjoy the finished outcome.
Check out these resources on management of grassland:
Natural Resources Conservation Service
Indiana Division of Fish & Wildlife-Strip Disking
Indiana Division of Fish & Wildlife-Mowing
Indiana Division of Fish & Wildlife-Strip Spraying
Matthew S. Kraushar, Habitat Specialist
Forestry & Natural Resources, Purdue University