One of the greatest ironies of the present struggle that quail are facing in Georgia and the Southeast, an irony pointed out a few months back by wildlife biologist Reggie Thackston in the pages of GON, is that at one time people created excellent quail habitat and flourishing populations entirely by accident. Today, even through intensive manipulation of the land backed up by research, technology, and untold amounts of money, we find it difficult to keep quail around on purpose.
However, some biologists, like Reggie, agree that the small landowner can take steps to make their land more quail-friendly, capable of supporting a covey or two-or more depending on the exact scenario.
In recent decades, biologists heavily stressed the need to provide more food sources for quail. More recently that recommendation, in the light of new research and field experience, was demoted to a lower level of importance. Providing feed through food plots, biologists now know, is just one piece of the quail puzzle. The other more important pieces have to do with field and forest management-providing the right cover: good nesting areas, good brooding habitat, good escape cover, etc. Food plots are not a cure-all, and they are of little worth at all if the year-round needs of quail aren’t also met, but in the right combination of practices they are important.
With that said, February is the right time to plant bi-color lespedeza seedlings for an excellent fall and winter seed source that is also good screening cover. Bi-color, a very popular perennial lespedeza shrub, can be planted as a seedling during winter while it is dormant. Of course perennial lespedeza, including bi-color, thunbergii, and a few other varieties, can also be broadcast or drilled as a seed.
If you’re going to plant lespedeza from seeds, you’ve still got a month or two to spare depending on the variety and the region you are in. But now is the time to plant seedlings, so now is the time to decide what type of lespedeza best suits the needs of your land and its wildlife. Though it is best to make that decision in your specific region by incorporating the advice of your local DNR biologist or county agent, the choice between perennial or annual comes down to a few basic differences.
Both annual and perennial lespedezas are excellent, high-energy, highly-preferred food sources. Perennial or shrub lespedezas, however, provide better escape cover. Annual, or low-growing lespedezas like kobe, one of the most commonly used varieties, provide decent brood habitat in the summer because they are low-growing and fairly dense. Quail chicks can find plenty of insects in a patch of kobe while still being able to maneuver and stay out of sight of predators. But annuals can’t match shrub lespedeza for year-round cover. Does your habitat already have plenty of edge, not-too-dense shrub thickets, and old-field habitat? The annual will do fine. Does your land need more thick cover, more edge and more hiding areas? Shrubs are the best choice for you.
Obviously, shrub lespedeza has the added advantage of any perennial in that once you plant it, it’s established and will produce again and again each year. Kobe, as an annual, must be replanted. In some instances, if you run a light disk over a year-old patch of kobe in the winter, the patch will reseed itself and produce again for that season, but the patch will not reach the same level of productivity the second year, and by the third year it usually plays out. Either way, it’s an annual effort with annuals, whereas a little mowing and maybe a little fire every two or three years will keep shrub lespedeza in great shape.
In the short-term, it is more expensive to plant perennial lespedeza seedlings than it would be to broadcast or drill annual lespedeza in the same plot. Bi-color seedlings can run anywhere from $60 to $80 per thousand, enough to plant an eighth of an acre, but the seed to cover that same plot would cost around $10 to $15. The cost balances out if you’re planting annuals, because to have a fully-productive patch you’ll need to replant every year. You can save money by planting shrub lespedeza in seed form-you’ll just have to wait an extra year or two to see any seed production, and the density of your patch will be more difficult to predict and manage, an important factor for quail.
If you decide on bi-color seedlings, get your planting done before mid-March. As far as placement is concerned, Reggie Thackston recommends that patches not be placed in wide-open areas, because quail are exposed to predators as they move between the patch and woodlands. However, Reggie also said that patches placed directly alongside woodlands are more difficult to hunt. Leaving an open zone about 10 to 15 yards wide between woods and feed strips creates shooting room without overly exposing the quail to predators. This strip of open ground can then be managed with mowing, burning and disking to create and maintain grassy brood habitat.
Big plots are less desirable than smaller plots, and again the reason is that bigger plots are more difficult to hunt, according to Clay Sisson, the project manager of Auburn University’s Albany Area Quail Management Project, an exhaustive, ongoing quail research effort taking place in Baker County. If hunters locate quail in a big patch of shrubs, the quail are very likely to run and escape deeper into the patch rather than flush on the edges, Clay said. Patches should be planted in rectangular strips for this reason.
"I would say that your patches need to be no more than 30 yards long," Clay said. "This way if you catch them in a patch, you can still get a shot."
According to Clay, it doesn’t take much bi-color to make a lot of seed, so having several smaller plots doesn’t take away from the food source value. Choose several locations for your strips, which should be about one-eighth of an acr. If you have a half-acre plot in the woods, don’t plant the whole plot but use the shrubs to make a border on the edges of the plot. Then the rest of the plot is free for other crops or to be left to native vegetation.
Plant the seedlings one to two feet apart in rows, with three feet between the rows. The seedlings are the perfect size to plant quickly by hand with a dibble bar, or for numerous patches a tree planter will also work, which by the way can be rented from the Georgia Forestry Commission.
As always, it never hurts to run a soil test in the plot you are going to plant, then respond with the required fertilizer. After lespedeza shrubs are planted, the only maintenance is a little mowing and a little fertilizer each year just before the spring greenup. According to Clay, you sometimes lose a year of seed production after mowing a patch of lespedeza, so a good plan is to mow only a third of your strips each year. This way, a particular strip is mowed once every three years, about the right timing to keep the patch from becoming too rank and overgrown. After mowing, a little fire can also help, as burning stimulates the plants to come back thicker and bushier.
Fertilizing each spring also helps, but remember that lespedeza is a legume and therefore fixes its own nitrogen. Broadcast a high-phosphorous, low-nitrogen fertilizer, like 0-10-10 or 0-14-14.
There is one negative aspect of bi-color that you should be aware of: in heavy clay soils like those found in some areas of the Piedmont and the southwest corner of Georgia, bi-color can escape through seed dispersal from food patches into nearby woodlands, where it can quickly become a problem. The shrubs are difficult to manage once they escape and can shade out desirable native plant species.
If your land has heavy clay soils, check with the county agent or biologist before you plant bi-color, because another variety of lespedeza may be a better choice. Thunbergii, for example, is a shrub variety that is not as prone to spread, although it is not as good a seed producer as bi-color.
Once again, no food crop or feeder is going to turn your land into instant quail-hunting heaven. However, if you are also leaving some ground fallow every year to produce bugging grounds and brood habitat, if you are letting woodland edges around fields grow up in grasses, native legumes and small shrubs, if you are burning, disking or mowing a small part of your lands every year to keep good cover from becoming too thick, and if you have some pine woodlands that have been allowed to mature into open forests where a high percentage of the forest floor receives sunlight during the day, then lespedeza and other food sources will fit perfectly into your management picture, and you will have a place where quail can flourish.
Incidentally, this month is the prime time for burning woods before green growth pops out. Never burn all of your open woods in one year. Research shows that the most preferred nesting habitat of the quail is the grassy cover that occurs in pine woods that missed a burning for one year. Also, don’t burn your hardwood stands if you are interested in providing for deer and turkeys in addition to quail. If you are new to burning, call the Georgia Forestry Commission at 1-800-GATREES to get some help and advice, because it is very easy to destroy years of habitat work (not to mention homes and property) with one out-of-control fire. Good firebreaks, the right weather, and a lot of caution are some prerequisites, and a permit from the forestry commission for each burn is also required.