There is a reoccurring conversation that we seem to have with clients. “I want to bring quail back to my property. What do you think of this single and specific species?” The typical reply is something along the lines of… “It depends on what vegetation is currently established and how dense is it? Typically, most are starting from either what is or what will be bare ground, or, old conservation projects. Regardless of where you start, there is not one magical species that will bring all the birds in the world in. Habitat, diversity, moisture, and most of all patience, these are the things that bring in the birds.
Creating an Upland Habitat
Initial use of native, drought-tolerant bunchgrasses is the best place to start. These grasses provide a nesting area that is secluded and insulated from the elements. These grasses are used as a sheltering component within the habitat. Once the grass species mature, they create a natural canopy between each plant. This provides predation cover as well as helping to regulate the soil temperature. The regulation of soil temperature is mutually beneficial to the animal, plant, insect and microbial species within the local ecosystem. Secondly, the vegetation coverage helps retain moisture by limiting the amount of evaporation that occurs due to extreme soil temperatures. The area being vegetated also increases the water infiltration rate of the soil, reducing erosion during dramatic rainfall events. During these rainfall events, the biomass of the grasses slows down the rate at which water contacts the ground. This allows the soil to absorb as much water as possible while reducing water erosion. Lastly, vegetated soils create ideal soil health. The resulting soil health impacts create additional habitat for insects. The insects are a vital food source for new hatchlings. Mature birds will consume some level of insects as well.
Most of the areas that would create ideal upland habitat deal with drought to some degree. This again is why native bunchgrasses are ideal for upland habitat. These grasses have dense expansive roots system that can reach depths greater than 10 feet in some cases. These root systems allow the plant to collect moisture and nutrients from deep within the soil, even in times of drought. The grasses abilities to withstand times of drought also prevent wind erosion from occurring. Wind erosion can be just as destructive as water erosion in some parts of the country, especially in times of drought. The root system that allows the plants to survive drought also provides stability to the soil, reducing wind and water erosion during storm events.
The density of these bunchgrasses can heavily influence the quality of your habitat. Historically these habitats have been created within old or expiring conservation projects. The density of the plantings within the projects are conservative in most cases. Pertaining to upland habitat specifically, this may be better than a retired hay meadow. Too great of a density of bunchgrasses prevents the bird’s abilities to move, collect food, and avoid predators. A lack of plant density allows for erosion, higher soil temperatures, and a reduction in cover and nesting habitat. A generic rule of thumb of an ideal plant density would be to have an appearance of density from afar, yet once you walk through the area you could place your foot between the grass bunches and possibly see a small amount of soil. This could vary dramatically in your specific area. Striking a balance between plant density and erosion is key.
When creating habitat from bare soil, patience and time to allow the area to vegetatively mature should hold high regard. Planting rates will generally vary between conservation and reclamation rates. Many areas require between 3 to 5 years of successful plant establishment to have a useable habitat from bare soil. This time frame may seem drastic to some, though it’s normally as quick, or quicker than creating habitat within an existing plant community.
The Not-so-Secret? Diversity of Forbs
Forbs are a major food source for game birds and wildlife in general. Forbs in an upland habitat should be largely perennial, native and drought-tolerant. Annual and bi-annual forbs may be a wise addition to the perennial forbs is some areas as well.
When planting forbs into existing native grasses, an overseeding of forbs may be all that is needed to attract upland birds and wildlife. As well, some habitats may benefit from an overseeding of forbs every 3-5 years. This figure may vary due to environmental conditions, weather patterns, and management of the area. If the area chosen for habitat has dense vegetation or brush, major management of the density more than likely will be needed to create the desired habitat.
A diversity of forbs in a habitat historically attracts more wildlife, regardless of the desired or targeted species. Each species of forbs has a different bloom period and helps maintain a food source throughout the seasons. Typically 6 or more forbs in an area is ideal. This allows for at least 2 different species per bloom period. Ideally, 8 to 12 species is desirable. This allows for some overlap in bloom periods and more variety of food source.
A notable secondary benefit of forb diversity is the utilization of these plants by pollinators. The benefits of pollinator species within a habitat can be dramatic. Pollinator species utilize forbs for their own habitat. As well as participating as predators and pray for other species of insects and animals. The plant species benefit from pollinator presences as well. Pollinators play a critical role in the long-term, continued reproduction of forbs.
Quail are often viewed as a key performance indicator to the quality of an areas habitat. Historical data indicates, as the quilty and diversity of vegetation decreases, upland birds are some of the first species to be affected.
Article credit: Colby F. Scroggins – Reclamation Specialist at Bamert Seed Company.
Photo credit: Barry Coker, Ricky Linex, and Bamert Seed Company.