The Natural Georgia Series: The Fire Forest

Longleaf Pine-Wiregrass Ecosystem

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A northern bobwhite quail in flight. Photo by Richard T. Bryant. Email richard_T_bryant@mindspring.comNorthern Bobwhite Quail: A Southern Legacy

by Michelle S. Davis. Photos by Richard T. Bryant.

The mature longleaf pines towered overhead, sunlight filtering through the canopies of the long, thin pine needles for which this tree is named. Underneath, a sea of waist-high grasses waved in the breeze, the bronze and tan colors ablaze from the sun.

It was a warm fall day, and a host of colorful butterflies was flitting to and fro. Songbirds and fox squirrels were also busily darting about, while a nearby gopher tortoise burrow appeared empty for the moment.

We were visiting a south Georgia quail-hunting plantation, and though we knew there were scores of Northern bobwhite quail on this property, their perfectly camouflaged plumage kept them hidden. After a few minutes, we caught sight of a small covey of birds in the grasses to our right. They remained frozen until we were right upon them before they exploded into a rapid exit, the noisy beating of their wings mimicking mini-helicopters.

Plantations such as this one are common in south Georgia, particularly in the plantation belt, which stretches from Albany and Thomasville down into Tallahassee, Florida. These large tracts of land, most of which have been passed down through the generations, harbor some of the last remaining stands of longleaf pine habitats in the Southeast. Were it not for the popularity of quail hunting, longleaf pine habitat in Georgia would be extinct.

At one time, 92 million acres of longleaf pine forests blanketed areas of the Southeast from Virginia to Texas. As traditional land use changed, the 92 million acres dwindled to a mere 3 million.

The devastation of this disappearing habitat is far-reaching. The longleaf pine-grassland ecosystem is one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world. Because of development and fragmentation, it has all but disappeared. The decline of longleaf has brought with it a decline in 30 species of wildlife that are now listed as endangered or threatened. Included among these are the threatened gopher tortoise, federally endangered indigo snake, and greatly diminished Northern bobwhite quail.

Quail nest on the ground, making the eggs vulnerable to predators including snakes and raccoons. Photo by Richard T. Bryant. Email richard_t_bryant@mindspring.comLongleaf pine forests are the native habitat of the Northern bobwhite because of the food and cover provided by this ecosystem. The longleaf's nutrient-rich seeds and its ability to withstand fire make this habitat perfect for the small game bird.

According to Reggie Thackston, a senior wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and coordinator of the Bobwhite Quail Initiative, Georgia's quail population throughout the state has been diminishing for quite some time.

"We've had a steady decline in the population since the '60s, with some natural fluctuations," said Thackston. While the population has been on a downward spiral, excellent weather conditions can sometimes result in increased numbers of quail for a short period of time. Good weather can't compensate over the long haul, however, for a loss of habitat, which began resulting in a decline in quail numbers as early as the 1920s. This decline reached a critical stage in the 1960s.

"Habitat is the key. There is no mystery here about quail decline. Some might attribute it to fire ants or acid rain, but the bottom line is that in places where you have substantial acres of good habitat you will have quail. You can see that in Georgia. You can also look to the west in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, where by accident they still have good blocks of good habitat and still have quail. It's all about land use changes," said Thackston.

The disappearance and fragmentation of the longleaf habitat and the progression in farming over the years are the primary land use changes that have had a dramatic impact on quail. One of the key differences in agriculture seen over the past century is the loss of small farms throughout the Southeast and the "cleaning up" of the larger farms. Smaller farms meant more hedgerows, which provide habitat for quail including food and cover. There has been a massive consolidation of the small farms into large, corporate farms that have removed hedgerows from their landscape. In fact, the number of farms in Georgia had fallen from approximately 86,000 in 1965 to less than 60,000 in 1983, while the average number of acres per farm during that same time frame increased from about 220 to more than 270 acres. As farmers began to eliminate the weedy edges around their fields and control insects with pesticides, prime habitat for quail began to disappear.

Natural History

The Northern bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus) is one of six species of quail found in North America. Only the Northern bobwhite is found in the Southeast. Its range stretches up to southern New England, westward to the Great Plains, and south into Mexico. It is also found in areas of the Caribbean.

The Northern bobwhite, known for its whistled call of "bob-white", is a small- to medium-sized quail, averaging 8.5 to 10.5 inches high. The small, rotund game bird is brilliantly colored and easily identified by the white throat and white stripe along the brow (both of which are buff-colored in females). It is ruddy brown in color with a more chestnut-colored back that is finely barred in tan and black. Its white breast is marked with jagged, narrow black bands. The quail has a slight head crest that becomes apparent when the bird is alert. Its wings and short tail are bluish-gray.

In the wild, quail form family groups called coveys. The average range for quail is one covey per 40 acres. A covey may contain between one and three family units and can range from 10 to16 birds. Two or more hens and males may be part of one covey, as well as two broods hatched in the same season, from spring to early fall. Coveys generally form in the early fall and disband in the early spring as the quail begin selection of nesting sites.

Both the male and female help construct the nest. It is built on the ground near an opening such as a field or a road. The nest is a simple scrape in the ground lined with grasses and other vegetation. Weeds and grasses are sometimes woven into the shape of an arch above the nest to help conceal it.

As ground-nesting birds, quail and their young are very susceptible to predators resulting in a very high mortality rate. Quail and their young are prey for a number of animals. Birds of prey, such as hawks and owls, prey on the adults, while the eggs may be preyed on by an even greater number of predators including native snakes and raccoons.

To ward off predators, an abundance of escape and nesting cover in the form of tall grasses and other types of brush is a critical component of quail habitat. Longleaf pine forests that are being managed correctly provide these areas during burn cycles. Farmland that includes borders and hedgerows also provides cover. Both of these habitats also provide the insects, seeds, and other food sources that quail need to survive.

To balance their short life-span, quail also have a high reproductive rate. In good conditions, one pair can produce two broods of 25 or more offspring in a single breeding season, which may last from April to September in some cases.

An average of 12 to 14 eggs are laid per clutch. One female may lay two clutches in a season. The young are hatched covered in natal down and are completely flightless for the first two weeks, leaving them extremely vulnerable to predators. They are also very susceptible to cold, wet weather due to their lack of plumage and require almost constant brooding. Both the male and female care for the young during this time. Their paternal instincts are strong, and they use a "broken wing" display, in which one of the parents fakes injury to lead a predator away from the young.

The parents do not feed the young but are responsible for leading them to food. During the first six weeks of life, the chicks feed almost entirely on insects. Afterwards, their diet will shift to include seeds and berries. At just four months, the birds have grown in size and appearance to resemble adult birds.

Adult quail feed on hard mast including acorns and pine seeds, as well as legume seeds, insects, soft mast such as berries, and grass seeds. They get much of their water from dew on vegetation but will also utilize wetlands as a water source.

Quail spend the majority of their lives on the ground and only fly short distances when necessary. The only time quail fly alone is at night when they fly to their roosting spot so as to not leave a scent trail. The covey generally roosts on the ground, where the quail sleep in a circle with their tails together and beaks facing outward. A small, round pile of droppings is often a sign of where a covey roosted the night before.

Quail are such popular game birds in the U.S. and around the world because they fly so infrequently and travel short distances. Sportsmen use hunting dogs to flush the birds up off the ground, and once the birds are hit, they land close by and are easy to collect. Also, unlike other birds such as doves, both wild and pen-raised quail don't show much fear of humans or vehicles. Doves generally fly immediately when they see a human, while quail only fly in a panic, waiting until the last possible second to take off.

Range and Habitat

Wild coveys of Northern bobwhites can be found throughout Georgia, although the highest densities are found in the Coastal Plain and particularly in the Upper Coastal Plain, which encompasses parts of central and southwest Georgia.

"There are quail in the Piedmont," said Dr. John Carroll, an assistant professor with the Warnell School of Forest Resources of the University of Georgia. "A lot more than people think. But most parts are never going to have numbers that people will get excited about. There's too much nonhabitat and too much poor habitat."

There are small areas in the Piedmont that are being managed for quail and are home to small pockets of the birds. The problem is they are most often surrounded by "a sea of nonhabitat," said Dr. Carroll. These small fragments of land will never support large numbers of quail because the land surrounding these small oases just isn't conducive for quail.

"The best situations are on quail plantations where everything is managed for quail. Some densities may have one to three quail per acre, which is excellent, some of the best in the country," said Thackston.

Hunters on plantations may find as many as 3 to 8 coveys per hour. On or around farm land, a good day would include only 6 to 12 coveys total. In poor habitat, hunters might expect only 1 to 2 coveys in a day.

The numbers were much better in the early 1900s, when quail were far more prevalent and habitat was abundant. Unfortunately, there are few records available providing exact numbers. Thackston, however, has heard reports of hunters sighting 20 coveys a day on regular farm land. He has memories as late as the 1960s when he could find as many as 15 coveys in one day, though the average was more like 4-6 coveys per day on his father's 70 acres. That acreage located in Paulding County of metro Atlanta is today surrounded by subdivisions, and the quail are gone.

"Even in the Upper Coastal Plain, there's a big issue of habitat fragmentation. We're seeing it much more drastically in the Piedmont and in the mountains because of land use changes," said Thackston.

In the mid-1900s, farming was still prevalent in the Piedmont, but now the farmland has been replaced by urban and suburban areas, exotic grass pastures, and timber operations. Though small islands of early succession can be obtained from clear-cut areas on timber farms, they are usually not maintained. As a result, the temporary habitat disappears rather quickly, leaving the quail nowhere to go.

Another factor affecting quail is weather, which plays an important role in the annual fluctuations of a local quail population.

"The worst-case weather scenario is an extended drought," said Thackston. "Quail do best on average and above-average rainfall distribution throughout the spring and summer months. When rainfall is good, you have good weeds which means good cover, and higher survival rates for quail."

The weeds also provide the bobwhites with food through seed and insect production. During a drought, there is less food production, less cover, and higher predation rates.

Legacy of Quail Plantations

"There is a strong heritage of quail in Georgia. That is evident in that our state game bird is a bobwhite," said Thackston. It is also one of the reasons the bobwhite quail is depicted on Georgia's "Give Wildlife A Chance" license plate.

“We create edges, fields, and borders. The more edges you have, the more quail you’ll have,” says Cader Cox of  managing land at  Riverview Plantation. Photo by Richard T. Bryant. Email richard_t_bryant@mindspring.comIndeed, Georgia was once known as the "Quail Capital of the World" because of its many quail plantations. These family plantations have allowed large tracts of land to remain intact for over a century in some cases. This preservation of land has been instrumental in saving what is left of both the longleaf pine ecosystem and the southeastern quail population.

The average quail plantation ranges from 6,000 to 12,000 acres. One of the larger land holdings, Ichauway Plantation, in southwest Georgia was owned by Robert W. Woodruff and is now managed by the Woodruff Foundation. Woodruff made his first land purchase in the 1920s and continued adding parcels until the 1980s. Today, the property encompasses 29,000 acres including 17,000 acres of prime longleaf-wiregrass habitat. After Woodruff's death, the Woodruff Foundation did extensive research to determine the best use of the property. The Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center was the result and was established in 1991.

Woodruff, who was an avid outdoorsman, maintained Ichauway for quail hunting and left what is now one of the most extensive tracts of longleaf pine-wiregrass habitats in the United States. Today, the focus at Ichauway is on research and education.

"Quail hunting still continues on a reduced scale, but our emphasis is on use of the property for research, broad conservation goals, and educational demonstrations of good land stewardship for multiple forest and wildlife management objectives," said Dr. Lindsay Boring, director of the Jones Center.

On a smaller scale, Quailridge located in Moultrie and owned by John Norman also dates back to the 1920s when his great-grandfather, also named John Norman, purchased the property. Though pieces of land were divided and sold during the Great Depression, 4,000 acres have remained in the family, and Norman shares the duties of maintaining the preserve with his father and siblings. Quailridge didn't become a commercial hunting plantation until 1969, when the Normans took their first customer. In the beginning, it was a turpentine operation and farm.

Today, approximately 700 to 800 people hunt on Quailridge each season, and many of the hunters are corporate clients. The farming operation has significantly diminished. Only 600 to 700 acres are being cultivated. The Normans grow about 50 to 60 acres of peanuts, and the remaining 600 or so acres are leased.

Cader Cox and his brother, Glenn, are the fifth generation owners of Riverview Plantation, which is similar to Quailridge and located near Camilla. The 12,000-acre plantation began as a big family farm. It wasn't until 1957, when his parents decided to try bringing in some extra money, that they began entertaining hunters for a fee.

The Cox family continues to farm 1,800 acres of peanuts and vegetables. The family separates the farming from the hunting areas because it believes many of the best management practices for farming and hunting contradict each other.

Cox believes that the quail plantations have had a tremendous impact on the economy. "If you could see the Albany airport in the winter-it's just one big jet after another," he said.

Quail season brings individuals from all over the world to south Georgia for a hunting experience on one of the local quail hunting plantations. In addition, the plantations provide jobs and services, and, according to Cox, are generally very philanthropic. "The quail plantations have a better chance of surviving than the family farm," says Cox.

The market seems to support that conclusion. Cox's clientele, who are mostly corporate groups, come from as far as western Europe. Many of Norman's clients also travel great distances to visit his south Georgia plantation. The individuals are there to hunt and enjoy true southern hospitality.

The traditional southern style of quail hunting involves riding horseback with a mule-drawn wagon to carry the dogs. It is a leisurely hunt that begins at 9 a.m. following a hearty breakfast, breaks for a two-hour lunch, and resumes for three hours in the afternoon. Dogs, of course, are used to find and flush the coveys.

Hunting at Ichauway continues in this tradition for a small number of sportsmen each year, for hunting there is limited to invitation-only by the Woodruff Foundation. On Quailridge and Riverview, however, jeeps have replaced the horse and wagon. The Norman family grew up hunting on the farm during the days when large numbers of quail were found there. In fact, in the 1965 season, they killed 500 wild birds.

"Those numbers of native birds aren't here now," says Norman.

All of the commercial hunting plantations supplement their native population with the release of pen-reared birds because of the hunting pressure. Each year, approximately 1,600 hunters visit Riverview, too many for the wild bird population, though they still have what Cox calls a "big natural bird population" on some of the larger tracts of land that are managed for quail.

The Normans purchase their pen-reared birds as adults from local quail farms in Georgia and Florida. A total of 25,000 birds are purchased each year, the vast majority of them later in the season. The Normans like to get their birds in the woods quickly, so the birds are kept in the pen for as short a time as possible, a few weeks at most.

"There is more to it than releasing them," said Norman. "You have to put them where you want them and convince them to stay. You try to put them some place that they like, with lots of food and cover."

If those conditions don't exist, then all the expense and effort of releasing pen-raised birds could be lost if the birds decide to move off the property to a better location.

Plantation owners who maintain habitat for pen-reared birds are also providing habitat for wild quail.

"Lots of folks manage well for reared birds and help a lot of other species at the same time. Even if you're not trying to manage for wild birds, there's a net conservation benefit," said Carroll. "In plantation country, most land managers have in the back of their minds that what they're doing is helping other species."

For both Norman and Cox, helping wild quail and other wildlife is an important part of their mission, not just an afterthought.

"Our goal is to make quail hunting as much like natural quail hunting as possible," said Cox. "We do fire breaks, plant seed patches-all those things Ichauway does. We create edges, fields, and borders. The more edges you have, the more quail you'll have."

For many plantations, aesthetics are important. Cox conducts selected thinning, letting the most vigorous trees grow. "We want it to look like a native quail plantation," he said.

Norman shares some of the same philosophies.

"We do everything we can to have as many wild quail as possible," said Norman, who had spotted two coveys of wild quail the day before. "The main thing is fire and planting feed patches."

The Normans plant mainly Egyptian wheat, which provides cover for the birds in the winter. The family relies on agriculture to provide the open ground and insects that young quail need.

Predator control is an issue for all quail plantations. Cox's approach toward predator control can be simplified into one statement: "It's not nice to fool mother nature." Cox believes that overdoing predator control can upset the balance of power. He understands that an artificial increase in the quail population equals an artificial increase in the number of predators. As a result, predator control is a year-round problem for him, like most other land managers, but one he understands and respects.

This mansion was built around 1835 at Greenwood Plantation, a cotton plantation that was  acquired in 1899 as a hunting estate by Col. Oliver Hazard Payne. The family of one of his descendants,   John Hay Whitney, owns the house today. Photo by Richard T. Bryant. Email richard_t_bryant@mindspring.comLand Management for Quail

Up until the early 1900s, management for quail was virtually unheard of, except on select shooting preserves. Unintentionally, however, sharecropping was one of the best quail management techniques in existence. Sharecropping was a practice in the 1800s and 1900s in which individuals living off the land shared resources with each other. Their practices were ideal for quail because they would rotate the use of small fields from year to year, leaving some fields vacant for a year or so.

In terms of land management practices to encourage quail, "they did everything that we try to mimic today," said Jimmy Atkinson, natural resource manager at the Jones Center.

Following the example of sharecroppers and owners of the small family farms, today's quail plantation owners have been instrumental in managing for quail and quail habitat.

The Ichauway property at the Jones Center is managed for the longleaf pine-wiregrass ecosystem. The quail population at Ichauway is about one bird per acre, which is good, said Atkinson. Approximately 650 birds, no more than 25 percent of the population, were harvested last year. Land at the Jones Center is managed for broader purposes-other than quail-such as nongame wildlife, research, education, and conservation goals.

"One of the great things about quail management is that it benefits other species too, including a host of nongame species such as songbirds like the indigo bunting and purple grosbeak," said Dr. Boring.

In addition to a good quail population, the Jones Center has healthy populations of endangered and threatened animals like fox squirrels, indigo snakes, gopher tortoises, red-cockaded woodpeckers, flatwood salamanders, and an endangered plant known as the American chaffseed.

“One of the great things about quail management is that it benefits other species too,   including a host of nongame species such as songbirds,”  says Dr. Lindsay Boring. Photo by Richard T. Bryant. Email richard_t_bryant@mindspring.com"You can do all of that if you don't go too far in one direction," said Atkinson. "When you begin managing intensively for one species, other species are likely to suffer as a result."

The management of the property is very complex and requires a large staff. Much of the staff's attention is focused directly on the longleaf pines. Approximately 100 to 200 acres of longleaf seedlings are planted each year. Timber harvesting occurs in research plots, restoration areas, and educational demonstrations of forest management.

The goal is to burn the property on a two-year rotation, anywhere from a few to several thousand acres at a time. The 600 miles of unpaved roads are used as fire breaks.

"For quail, 60 to 70 percent of your area should be burned every year," said Atkinson.

Controlled burning is important to the management of a longleaf pine forest, as well as a quail population. Because quail are weak scratchers, meaning they can't forage well through leaf litter or maneuver easily in thick brush, they need open areas. Recently burned areas not only are devoid of heavy brush, but they also are teeming with insects, on which the quail feed. In addition, plants that flower abundantly following burns provide food resources for the quail.

"Fire ties it all together," said Atkinson. "Without fire all the little oaks you see would take over and shade out the grasses and forbes that grow in the understory of the longleaf forest," said Atkinson.

Longleaf pines and seedlings as young as two to three years can withstand fire, while none of the other southern pines can be burned that young, said Atkinson. The brush grows back quickly-in just three weeks normally, although in the spring it grows back much quicker.

Of the 29,000 acres at the Jones Center, 4,000 of them are fields. These fields are managed for specific types of weeds that benefit quail and other wildlife, such as songbirds. Discing, or turning up the soil, in a field during the winter encourages ragweed to grow, which is a significant attractor of insects fed upon by quail. Ragweed, according to Atkinson, attracts more insects than any one other thing. The edges of the fields are planted for wildlife with a mix of millet, milo, and pea. Indigos, grosbeaks, rabbits, and fox squirrels also benefit from this field management system.

"Research shows that a landscape of 20 to 25 percent of agriculture is good quail habitat," said Atkinson.

Research at the Jones Center includes anywhere from 25 to 40 major research projects going on at any time, many of which are related to prescribed fire and longleaf pine ecosystems. Research on quail is related more to habitat than quail specifically. For example, studies have been conducted on predator-prey populations and optimum field size to benefit quail and other wildlife.

Georgia's Quail Initiative

The state DNR recently established the Bobwhite Quail Initiative (BQI), a voluntary program to encourage individuals, particularly farmers, to help restore quality early succession habitat for bobwhite quail and songbirds, improve water quality, and reduce soil erosion. The program requires farmers who choose to participate to install field borders and hedgerows. The purpose of these additions is to increase quail habitat in these areas.

Georgia's BQI is a pilot program not only for the state but also the Southeast. The program was kicked off in 1999, after members of the Georgia General Assembly approached DNR and asked what could be done for the quail population decline.

"There are a lot of eyes on Georgia. Some states are going ahead and building a program based on ours. South Carolina is in the process, Alabama is considering, so are Texas and Arkansas," said Thackston.

States across the Southeast are in a similar position in terms of quail numbers and habitat problems. Georgia was once the largest agricultural state and is also known for the many quail plantations dotting the southern half of the state.

BQI is designed to restore habitat for quail, songbirds, and other wildlife on private lands in a 14-county area of eastern central, central, and southwest Georgia. Financial incentives between $40 to $120 per acre are provided by the state for participation in the program.

Thackston believes it will take three to five years to see what is going to happen with the program. The first summer of operation in 2000 resulted in good reports of young broods of quail around fields where quail hadn't been spotted in the past. The results are being monitored by UGA.

The BQI program has been heavily endorsed by state and federal environmental agencies as well as numerous other partners including the Georgia Soil and Water Conservation Commission, Georgia Forestry Commission, and Quail Unlimited.

The program benefits more than just quail and quail hunting. Implementing native quail habitat aids a multitude of other wildlife including a number of songbirds that are also in decline such as the grasshopper sparrow, Bachman's sparrow, and loggerhead shrike.

Involvement in the BQI isn't limited to farmers. Participants in the Conservation Reserve Program who are planting longleaf pines may now participate.

"Because of the great ability to blend longleaf with quail management, we modified our program to allow fields replanted with longleaf pines to be included," said Thackston.

By themselves, these small pockets of habitat may not appear to make a significant difference in the quail population. But the hope is that a combined effort to increase quail habitat will result in an improvement in the overall quail population.

Until then, we will have to rely on the quail plantations. Were it not for these legendary plantations of old, the longleaf pine might be extinct with the quail population not far behind.

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