Cooperative Effort Pays Dividends for Quail

Integrating wildlife management, forest management, and agriculture to mutually benefit one another is a complex undertaking, and I'm sure some people are more than slightly skeptical about the possibilities. However, for those who want to learn more about integrating these disciplines, I would encourage you to visit Zoar State Forest.

Zoar isn't your typical state forest. At slightly over 300 acres, Zoar doesn't take up much room on the map. Actually, it isn't even shown on my state map. Zoar also doesn't contain vast expanses of forestland. In 1987, Zoar was still a privately owned farm, and even today, after being donated to the Virginia Department of Forestry, 60-70 acres of the property are maintained as productive cropland.

Zoar State Forest is an excellent example of what can be accomplished when the expertise and resources of separate agencies are combined to manage our natural resources. For the past 3 years, the Department of Forestry and the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries have actively integrated wildlife management, forest management, and agriculture to manage Zoar State Forest. Much effort has focused on developing a nature trail and several demonstration areas depicting typical management activities that can be implemented in an agricultural setting, and all this work has proved a bounty for wildlife, particularly quail.

The first stop along the nature trail is the demonstration nursery. Designed to help individuals identify important wildlife plants, the nursery contains native warm season grasses (NWSG), annual lespedezas, partridge pea, ladino clover, orchardgrass, and several species of fruit bearing shrubs. Each species has been planted in separate plots, and plots are clearly labeled to facilitate identification.

An open field planted with orchard grass and ladino clover sits next to the demonstration nursery. Rabbits and deer are often seen feeding in the field, particularly in spring when the young grass and clover shoots begin to actively grow. Turkeys use the field as brood habitat during late spring and summer. Quail are also found in this open field, nesting and brooding their young, which gorge themselves on the abundant insect population.

Beyond the open field is the rotational disk plot. Each spring, one third of the plot is disked. After the third year when all plots have been disked, you simply start over again. Disking creates bare ground from which springs the heavy seeding annual plant species such ragweed, beggars tick, partridge pea, and lespedeza. The diversity of habitat structure produced by rotational disking provides nesting and brood rearing habitat for quail, rabbits, turkeys, and many songbirds. Additionally, the abundance of seeds produced by the annual plants will provide an excellent fall food source for quail.

The prescribed burning demonstration area lies next to the disk plot. This area is burned every third year to provide nesting and brood rearing cover for quail, rabbits, and songbirds. Prescribed burning removes dead plant material from the ground's surface. If not removed, this dead material prohibits travel and feeding by quail chicks and young rabbits. Burning also increases the nutritional value of the new plant growth, improves nesting cover, and results in an increase in the abundance of insects within the burned area.

Behind the rotational disk plot is a field of NWSG. NWSG provide excellent nesting and escape cover for small game and songbirds. NWSG are tall growing clump grasses that are open at ground level, allowing animals to move freely at ground level but with plenty of overhead cover. Because NWSG can be maintained using prescribed burning, firelines have been disked around the field. Following disking, the firelines were seeded with annual lespedezas to serve as brood rearing habitat for quail.

Along the southeastern edge of the NWSG field is a cut-back edge. A cut-back edge is an area where trees adjacent to the field have been removed to create a shrubby field border. With today's land management practices, fields are usually adjoined by woodland. This type of border is called a “hard” edge. However, wildlife generally receive greater benefit from a “soft” edge or field border. Field borders are excellent for wildlife because they serve as nesting habitat, escape cover, loafing areas, and shelter from severe weather. Field borders also produce an abundance of food for wildlife, and remove little if any land from crop production.

Cutting back an edge is not the only way to create a field border. Behind the prescribed burning plot is a “soft” edge planting. This area serves the same purpose as the cut-back edge, but rather cutting trees away from the field edge, we planted a small strip of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants. The planting was arranged so the small trees and shrubs are located next to the woods and the herbaceous plants are adjacent to the field, resulting in a gradual transition from field habitat to forest habitat.

Following along the trail beyond the “soft” edge planting, you'll enter the woods. Zoar's forestland contains a mixture of hardwoods, pine plantations, and a beaver swamp. The diversity of stand types and ages produces a wide variety of wildlife foods and cover types beneficial to many wildlife species. For the moment, forest management activities are minimal as forest conditions dictate leaving the stands to grow. However, this condition will be short-lived. Plans are already being made to thin one of the pine plantations, and wildlife management considerations such as thinning density, revegetation of bare soils, and initiating a prescribed burning rotation will be a major part of the thinning operation.

So, when's the best time to visit Zoar State Forest and experience the benefits of the effort being given there? Without a doubt, it's early some brilliant June morning when the deer and turkeys gather in the field, rabbits scurry around the yard, songbirds flutter about the woods, and Gentleman Bob calls from his perch on top the rise.