One Plot at a Time

By Corky Decker

How Florida landowners can help restore wild quail populations.

Experts say the decline of native quail is related to habitat loss. It’s up to Florida landowners to take an interest and create what the birds need to thrive once again.

Ted Everett owns Hard Labor Creek Plantation in Chipley, Florida. Greg Hagan is the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Northern Bobwhite Coordinator and Upland Ecosystem Restoration Project Director. These guys can tell us what needs to be done.

Fire and Land Management

Both men agree that fire, controlled burns, is the single most important factor. For the native bobwhite quail, fire is life. They are a fire-dependent species, meaning that controlled burns along with selective
cutting allows the opening of the canopy where the sunlight can reach the woodland floor, which then produces the food source and nesting requirements for the bobwhite.

Quail have a wide range of foods they will eat. While they prefer insects (and chicks require a rich diet of arthropods) they eat seeds, acorns and any soft mast (berries and fruit). When nesting they need patches of dense grass, with areas of bare ground nearby for chasing bugs. The birds also need some thick cover close by for roosting and escaping predators.

Hunters about to send in their dogs to flush quail. Quail hunting has been squeezed in Florida by a decline of native quail. Inset, she got her bird

Greg says, “The key factor in maintaining these populations is frequent, every 18 to 30 months, fire applied to the landscape, regardless of season. Most properties benefit from a mixture of winter and spring/summer burning.”

At Hard Labor Creek Plantation, Ted has over 10 percent of his 3,000-plus acres dedicated to bobwhite quail. Creating 350 acres of carefully managed land is a labor of love.

Pen-Raised Birds
This is where the two men differ in their opinions. Greg didn’t agree with using pen-raised birds to increase wild populations. Low survival rates, limited brood-rearing ability and the potential for disease and parasites on the population are cited.

Ted, on the other hand, has seen some good results with “stocking” his land. His birds that are not harvested by hunters and escape the predators the first couple of days have a chance at surviving and he has seen this first-hand. Gary Clark, a master guide for Ted and his partner in the skeet and trap park, said he has seen more native birds the past two years than he has come across in the last 15 years. He now has five coveys of wild birds on his own personal land.

Another interesting addition that Ted has done this year, is adding two “Johnny Houses,” or call-back houses, to the most heavily hunted areas at the plantation. The house has a one-way gate, a tapered hole near the floor for the birds to enter. A male bird is placed in each house and around sunset will start his calls. Birds that escaped the day’s hunters respond really well. The Johnny House keeps the pen-raised birds safe from predators, and the birds seem to get a bit wilder every time Ted releases them.

Predator Management

During the winter months, avian predation (especially Cooper’s hawks) account for the majority of loss. During the summer nesting season, a host of predators such as snakes, raccoons, opossum, armadillo and bobcat are constantly on the lookout for a quick meal. Predator impacts can be minimized by maintaining quality habitat—creating roost cover, safe nesting areas and a place for the birds to hide from predators.

Johnny House, or "call-back house," shelters release birds until they get wild.

We can keep the coyotes, bobcat and raccoon populations in check on our land by legal trapping and hunting methods. Red ants or fire ants can also be a major problem for nesting quail and their eggs. Keep a 5-gallon bucket of Eliminator Fire Ant Killer Plus Granules (this stuff works great!) in the pickup or 4-wheeler to treat every mound you see. FS

Best Public Hunting Areas:

Quail
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission publishes Small Game season harvest statistics for a variety of species, including bobwhite quail. Among Wildlife Management Areas, the following are listed as “Good” for quail:

Northwest Region:
Blackwater WMA/Carr Unit
(pen-raised, released)
Apalachicola Munson Sandhills

Northeast Region:
Three Lakes WMA
Bull Creek WMA
Triple N Ranch WMA

Southwest Region:
Babcock Webb WMA

Quail season opens Nov. 9 and runs until Mar. 2 on private lands throughout the state, but dates may differ on WMAs. Check for regulations at myfwc.com/hunting.

First Published Florida Sportsman November 2013