Do you want quail on your land? There is a starting point, according to wildlife biologists, and it’s in the grass.
Fifty interested landowners attended a recent workshop on quail that was put on by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission in Little Rock. Nearly all the participants were on the upper side of 40 years old, an indicator of quail numbers being down for many years. Down but not forgotten.
The focus of the informational session was on habitat, as it usually is in such get-togethers. "Build it and they will come" applies to wildlife as well as a memorable baseball movie.
The building habitat for quail focuses on the restoration of native warm season grasses, said biologists Steve Fowler and Jason Honey. Another biologist, David Long, followed with information about a variety of federal conservation programs that can give financial help to landowners improving their wildlife habitat.
Quail and native grasses — compare them to ham and eggs, hot dogs and mustard — except they are much more than that.
The category of native grasses is a wide-ranging one and includes some vegetation not usually thought of as grass. It covers many varieties that spring up naturally along untilled areas like fence rows and ditch banks. It’s the growth that was all over Arkansas until the arrival of "clean" farming and aerial herbicide spraying and the elimination of anything growing that was not destined for market.
When food and cover in the form of native grasses disappeared, quail populations nose-dived.
There have been other factors besides the wiping out of weedy places. Fowler said that urbanization has reduced quail areas. Land is more fragmented. There is less burning in land management. On land used as pasture, native grasses often have been replaced by fescue and Bermuda grass — imports with little food or cover value for quail and other wildlife.
A feature of native grasses, the biologist said, is that they grow in tall clumps, not spread on the ground. Quail spend time under the tall grass and out of sight from predators like hawks.
With much potential quail habitat on farms and with quail often found on the edge of fields, a natural thought is to use the borders of crop fields for encouraging quail and other wildlife. When crops are planted up to tree stands, the "woods," the crops bordering the trees are often stunted, the biologists said.
OK, these edges can be planted with native grasses in lieu of soybeans, corn or wheat. But the edge strips need to be 30 or more feet wide, according to the biologists. Why? Protection. On a narrow, tractor width, strip of grass, a marauder like a raccoon or a skunk can slip up on quail much more readily that on a wider area with more places for hiding and escape by the birds. Some of the federal incentive programs specify a minimum width for these edge-planted strips.
Native arm season grasses liked by wildlife managers include the several varieties of bluestem, Indiangrass, switchgrass, sideoats grama, eastern gamagrass and others. Seeds can be bought from a number of sources.
Also important in the basic land working to encourage quail is soil disturbance and fire, the biologists said.
Soil disturbance can be simply using a disk on these edge areas. What grows back after the disk work is native grass.
"Fire is the best and cheapest tool you can use," Honey said.
Woody growth is curtailed, and like in the disturbances, what grows back is mostly native grass. Most land managers use burning on a rotational basis, he said.
Persons interested in working land to encourage quail can begin by contacting one of the 12 private land biologists of the AGFC that are stationed around the state, These biologists can make on-site inspections and recommendations, and their consulting is free.
Joe Mosby is the retired news editor of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and Arkansas’ best known outdoor writer. His work is distributed by the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.