Rabbits and quail were once an abundant byproduct of farming operations.

Rabbits and quail once thrived on the traditional family farm. Both are essential to sport hunting in North Carolina. However, small-game populations in many areas have plummeted in recent years. Most reductions in populations can be traced to changes in the way we use our land resulting in less habitat or lower quality habitat. Small game populations will likely continue to decline on a statewide basis as our expanding human population and more efficient farming practices place greater pressures on wildlife habitat. No statewide program will solve the problem. It must be attacked on individual properties. Those individuals who are willing to invest time and resources to develop small-game habitat will continue to have quality hunting areas. Those expecting wildlife to be a simple by-product of agriculture are likely to be disappointed.

Introduction

Developing an effective small-game program for a tract of land is not as simple as planting a food plot for quail or erecting a nest box for squirrels. Winter foods may not necessarily be the factor limiting quail populations, and nest sites for squirrels may not be in short supply. Other factors, such as nesting or resting cover or the location of food in relation to nesting areas may be most important. To initiate a successful program a landowner must: 1) identify the requirements of the species he wishes to manage; 2) identify the factors limiting the population; 3) develop a plan; 4) implement the plan; and 5) evaluate the success of his efforts.

Identify the requirements of the species

A good understanding of the food and cover requirements of wildlife is needed to begin a successful habitat management program. Much of this information can be gained by observing the species and reading about their needs. A list of easy-to-obtain references is provided at the end of this pamphlet.

The seeds of many native plants are important quail food.

Identify limiting factors

Once you understand the requirements of a specific animal then you can better identiy factors limiting its population. Your management efforts should be directed at improving those factors. For instance, if winter foods are abundant on your farm, work on some other habitat component such as nesting cover or escape cover.

Develop a plan

Think through and write down your objectives. That's an important step in developing a successful management program. Inventory your land and decide how many of the requirements for small game are available. Note where each is located and how you could expand them. Take advantage of existing features and develop your plan around your particular objectives. Careful planning in the initial stages is critical because many of your decisions will affect wildlife populations on your land for years.

Implement the plan

Some parts of the habitat, such as nesting areas for quail, must be maintained frequently. Many activities must be conducted during a specific time of the year. Following your plan will ensure that management activities are completed on schedule.

Evaluate progress

Evaluating the success of your efforts is the most rewarding part of the program. The process can be as simple as recording hunting success or as complex as recording daily sightings, systematically counting tracks, or developing a regular route to listen for and record quail calls.

It is beyond the scope of this booklet to cover all the specific techniques available for managing small-game species. However, we will discuss a number of general farm game species. For additional assistance in managing wildlife on your land contact one of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission district wildlife biologists. Their names and addresses are available by calling 1-919-733-7291.

Bobwhite Quail Management

A quail management program must provide the bobwhite's food and cover needs during each season of the year.

A management program designed to increase or maintain high bobwhite populations must look at food and cover requirements during all seasons of the year. The number of quail attainable will be determined by the amount of quality habitat available during critical periods. In other words, the population is directly related to the requirement that is in the least supply. The more habitat and the greater variety of habitat on your land the more coveys you can expect.

Quail are adapted to the earliest stages of plant succession. Generally, annual disturbance of existing vegetation or soil improves the food and cover requirements of quail. A major portion of each covey's range should be maintained in weeds and grasses because these plants provide seeds, insects, and protection from predators. Well-dispersed thickets provide some foods, but more important, provide escape and loafing cover. Scattered trees add seeds, nuts, and fruits which are important foods during some seasons. Many normal farming or forestry programs can be modified to increase quail populations if the manager is willing make adjustments to provide suitable habitat.

Transition Zones

Quail are often referred to as an edge species since they flourish in areas where two or more habitat types meet, such as the border between croplands and woodlands. Expanding the transition zones of native weeds and grasses between cropland and woodland, or hedgerows, is the most economical and beneficial habitat improvement practice that can be applied on most farms. These strips provide cover, nesting sites, and a diversity of quail foods. Strips should be a minimum of 15 feet wide, and must be maintained to remain productive. A good rule of thumb is to disk or burn the strips in late winter whenever the soil surface is more than 50 percent covered with dead vegetation (usually every two to three years). These zones should be rotated so that each field has at least two sides in nesting cover each summer.

Transition zones providing nesting cover and foods are easily established by removing field edges from cultivation.
Strip Disking

The productivity of idle fields can be enhanced by disking strips during late winter. The freshly turned soil quickly revegetates in weeds and grasses whose seeds are excellent quail foods. Populations of insects, critical to the survival of young quail, are higher in disked strips. Double the number of grasshoppers were found in disked strips than in adjacent fallow fields. A strip with a maximum width of 20 to 40 feet is preferred since broods can find escape cover in the adjacent undisturbed areas. Look for and protect developing plum thickets, blackberry clumps, and sassafras clumps as these areas provide both food and cover.

Plants volunteering in disturbed soils soon provide high insect populations, overhead cover, and yet are open at ground level; conditions ideal for young quail.
Hedgerows

The consolidation of small field units into larger units by removing fencelines, hedgerows, and windrows has greatly reduced the amount of quail habitat on some farms. The hedgerow of native or introduced species, bordered by a transition zone, is the heart of many successful quail-management programs. One Midwestern study documented the decline and eventual loss of a local quail population as hedgerows in the township were reduced and finally eliminated.

Planning

Hedgerows can be incorporated into the overall farm plan. Take advantage of existing breaks such as roadsides, drainage ditches, and terraces to minimize loss of cropland. A 10-foot wide hedgerow with a 15- to 20-foot wide transition zone is recommended.

Plant Species

In moderately fertile soils, hedgerows of native shrub and tree species will develop if a strip of land is protected from disturbance for several years. Faster development is possible by planting varieties available from commercial nurseries. Such species as shrub lespedeza, blackberries, privet, autumn olive, or honeysuckle usually do well.

Maintenance

Hedges should be controlled by mowing or disking adjacent transition zones. Trees should be cut and left in the hedgerow when they threaten to shade out ground cover.

Hedgerows provide brushy escape cover and food in the form of berries and seeds of woody plants.
Developing Foods

Many bobwhite quail foods occur naturally on North Carolina farms when the correct management procedures are used. Landowners should learn to recognize native food plants and encourage them whenever practical. Most practices (i.e. disking or burning) that retard woody and shrubby vegetation and encourage weeds and grasses will be good for quail. Disking and burning provide additional benefits by removing the litter layer which often covers seeds and makes them unavailable to quail. Timing of management activities is important. Generally burning and disking have the greatest benefits when done in February or March.

Supplemental plantings have traditionally been utilized to provide a winter food supply for quail and can be an important part of an overall management program where native foods are in short supply. A primary function of plantings is to concentrate birds for hunting. Landowners should strive for quality plantings. Fertile sites adjacent to escape cover should be chosen for this intensive work. All plantings require thorough soil preparation and fertilization as any agricultural crop.

The first consideration on many farms should be to leave patches of unharvested rowcrops and crop residues near escape cover for quail. This is often more economical than planting specifically for quail. Where this practice is used, or where native foods are available throughout the winter, attention should be focused on increasing other aspects of the habitat such as nesting and escape cover.

Annual seed mix is designed to provide quail food from early fall into the winter months.

Components include cowpeas, soybeans, millets, sorghums, and buckwheat. Perennial seed mixture will produce a lasting food plot as well as good escape cover. Plots should be planted by mid-April and protected from disturbance the first two growing seasons. Plots should then be mowed or disked lightly in February every other year. Components include shrub lespedeza, annual lespedeza, partridge pea, and varieties of peas and beans.

Other excellent planting materials are available from most farm supply stores. A few of the more common are kobe and Korean lespedeza, corn, milo, peas, wheat, rye, and millet.

Further information on planting dates and cultural methods are available from your county Agricultural Extension Office or district wildlife biologist.

Pine forest succession managed for quail.
Forest Management for Quail

Though more often considered a farmland species, the bobwhite can thrive in properly managed open woodlands. In fact, a patchwork of forest and farmland has the greatest potential for quail management. Several management options are available to landowners who wish to harvest pine timber and quail. To get maximum bobwhite numbers, stands should be maintained on sawtimber rotations at low stocking rates, but moderate populations can be maintained on lands managed more intensively. The key to managing quail in forestland, as in agricultural areas, is to maximize the food and cover plants available.

Thinnings

Removing slow growing, diseased, and crooked trees from stands will increase the growth of higher quality trees. These breaks in the forest canopy will permit light to penetrate to the forest floor and encourage food and cover plants. Timber harvest should maintain an overstory open enough for direct sunlight to make large patches on at least 60 percent of the forest floor at one time (observation should be made on a clear day at noon when trees are in full leaf).

Low growing grasses and herbs which provide food and cover require sunlight to prosper.
Prescribed Burning
Prescribed fire: an essential step in managing pine woodlands for quail.

Timber stands thinned to recommended levels must be prescribed-burned to provide good quail habitat. Without fire, hardwood sprouts and young pines soon shade out more desirable grasses and weeds. Burning controls the unwanted plants, stimulates food-producing plants, and maintains an open, huntable timber stand.

Timing and methodology of burning depends upon the desired results. The intensity of the fire is controlled by burning during specific weather conditions and whether the fire is allowed to burn with or against the wind (headfire or backfire). Hotter fires, obtained by burning when the forest litter is dry and the humidity is low, are needed to control large hardwood sprouts. Once sprouts have been controlled, cooler fires should be used annually to maintain food and cover plants in a productive condition.

Large stands of timber should be subdivided by disked firelines before burning is initiated. In addition, small areas (1/4 to 1/2 acre) of thickets and nesting cover should be circled by firelines and protected. Burns are best conducted by experienced persons during February or March. The North Carolina Forest Service should be notified prior to burning.

Arial View of Prescribed Burning Woodland:
Well distributed grassy nesting areas and chumps of woody escape cover should be protected when conducting controlled burns.
Wildlife management practices

Management for Rabbits

Rabbit populations possess an extraordinary growth potential.

Rabbits have an incredible reproductive potential, but are a favorite food of predators including foxes, owls, bobcats, dogs, cats, and man. Many of the management techniques suggested for quail benefit rabbits, but your plan should maximize dense escape cover.

Cover

The edge where field and forest meet is the focal point for developing escape cover for rabbits. Food plants are usually abundant in this zone. However, many forested field edges lack sufficient cover to protect rabbits from predators.

To create ideal cover adjacent to the food supply start at the field edge and cut down everything for 30 to 50 feet into the woods. Use what you wish for firewood but leave tops and brush where they fall. In fertile soils a dense jungle, complete with honeysuckle and briars, will develop among the tops within a year or two. In a few years trees will begin to shade ground cover and you must repeat the process.

To increase the density of natural cover along the field edge, fertilize the area with a complete fertilizer (i.e. 8-8-­8 or 10-10-10) during early spring.

A major objective of rabbit management is to maximize dense escape cover.
Food

Studies have determined that a continuous supply of growing forage promotes increased reproductive success in rabbits. If you are fortunate enough to have abandoned fields or pastures to manage, mowing can be used to provide a fresh growth of plant material throughout the summer. If the soil you are managing is moderately fertile there is little need to worry about planting the strips. Simply mow narrow trails (8 to 10 feet wide) through the field at 150­ foot intervals. The trails should be mowed monthly during the summer tomaintain a continuous food supply.

To maintain your old field you will need to mow about one-third of the area each year in addition to the strips. This is best done in late spring or early summer so that the area is completely revegetated before frost. In some soil types you may need to mow less frequently. Wait as long as possible, but don't wait until trees coming up in the field are too big to mow.

Fresh growth following mowing provides accessible nutritious forage.

Harvest

Small game hunting provides fast action and excitement for young hunters.

Biologists have traditionally maintained that quail and rabbits cannot be over-harvested. When abundant food and cover are available this is still true. However, as habitat becomes fragmented and of poorer quality, as in many areas today, the chances that local populations can be over-harvested increases.

Quail

The size of your hunting grounds and the number of birds on it will determine how much quail hunting it will support. Determining quail population levels is going to be rough at best. The best practical method is to map where you find coveys and estimate numbers in the fall. To ensure an adequate carryover of breeding birds no more than half the fall population should be harvested.

Rabbits

Determining population size for rabbits is much more difficult than for quail. Even heavy hunting early in the season is not likely to harm spring breeding populations. However, you may wish to hunt the area less often in January and February unless you can track the rabbits after a snow and are able to document a good population. Even then a conservative approach is best.

References

Quail
  • Elliott, Charles. 1974. Prince of Game Birds: the Bobwhite Quail. Georgia Dept. of Natural Resources, Atlanta, Georgia. 193 pp.
  • Landers, J. L. and B. S. Mueller. 1986. Bobwhite Quail Management. A Habitat Approach. Available from Tall Timbers Research Station, RRt.1, Box 678. Tallahassee, FL 32312. ($5.00).
  • Rosene, W. 1969. The Bobwhite Quail: Its Life and Management. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick. 418 pp. Available from: Hartwell Sun, 200 N. Forest Ave., Hartwell, Georgia 30643.
  • Stoddard, H. L.1931. The Bobwhite Quail: Its Habits, Preservation and Increase. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. 628 pp.
Rabbits
  • Carson, J. D. and D. E. Cantner. 1963. West Virginia Cottontails. West Virginia Department of Natural Resources. Charleston, West Virginia. 25 pp.
  • Hill, E. P. 1972. The Cottontail Rabbit In Alabama. Bulletin 440. Agricultural Experiment Station, Auburn University. Auburn, Georgia. 103 pp.
  • Lord, R. D. Jr. 1963. The Cottontail Rabbit In Illinois. Technical Bulletin No.3. Southern Illinois University Press. Carbondale, Illinois. 94 pp.