Managing overstory is vital to bobwhite, timber health

Feb 28, 2024

This updated article is based on content originally published in the Tall Timbers Bobwhite Quail Management Handbook

Managing the overstory on a property can be the most important decision made by a landowner, as it affects not only habitat suitable for bobwhite quail and other wildlife, but also the type and abundance of many of their natural enemies.

Timber density can affect use by quail, impact the health of the forested landscape as a whole and determine what type of groundcover flourishes and helps carry prescribed fire.

From an economic standpoint, it is up to the landowner what the balance is for timber revenue and huntability.

While it is not possible to maximize timber income on quail land, regeneration of pines is also an important consideration for income production, to maintain needle cast to help carry fires and aesthetics.

At basal areas below 40, quail density is less tied to timber density, therefore reducing basal area below this will not likely improve quail populations, and can increase your management costs as it becomes harder to burn. Pine needle cast is an important part of each year’s burning fuel, and as it is reduced, fire coverage is less complete, so over time more mowing, chopping, and spraying is needed. Fire is by far the cheapest alternative to managing ground cover. On the other hand, as timber density increases, groundcover growth decreases.

Our standard recommendation then is to maintain pine basal area in the 40 – 60 square foot range, depending on soil type. Poor sandy soils will need to be on the lower end of this range and vice versa.

There are rare occasions where groundcover becomes too dense with grasses; overstory trees help keep it in check through shading and water competition. Overstory tree species also comes into play here — longleaf pine generally competes less with groundcover, as it is deeper rooted than the other pines, and the canopy formation produces less shade. On average, basal area considerations can therefore be moderated upward a bit in longleaf stands.

Selective harvest and regeneration

Many of the existing quail properties (such as Tall Timbers) have an old pine overstory — in some cases over 100 years old. Obviously you can’t keep thinning old timber forever without replacing it.

Longleaf pine has become the tree of choice for regeneration on old-field land, when they must be re-planted. Longleaf is a good fit on quail land due to its resistance to fire at a young age and long life span.

Properties with existing pine overstory can effectively maintain an open forest and regenerate pines naturally using the Stoddard – Neel system of forestry, which selectively harvests mature trees and maintains an uneven-aged forest through natural regeneration.

While most often associated with longleaf, this approach has been successfully used with “old-field” pines as well.

Natural regeneration of longleaf has been practiced in the greater Red Hills Region for nearly a century on properties with remnant longleaf overstory, but longleaf has also become the tree of choice on old-field land, when they must be re-planted. Longleaf is a good fit on quail land due to its resistance to fire at a young age and long life span.

Planting in small scattered patches in existing or created “gaps” in the forest can mimic a natural system. This process has been referred to as “artificial natural regeneration,” and now has been implemented on many thousands of acres in this region.

Site prep by spraying herbicide is important — as is gap size — as longleaf is relatively shade intolerant and vulnerable to competition when young. They should also be burned early, and then often for their whole life span; this helps control competition, and “teaches them to be a longleaf,” by encouraging them to reach for the sky and have fewer limbs.

Standard stocking rates of 500 – 600 per acre are too many when young, but will make the best trees in the future. Low stocking rates can get “limby” and may need pruning, and still not be a good tree later in life.

The advantage of thinning

Somewhere in between is probably the best (300 – 400 trees per acre), with some light pre-commercial thinning and pruning, if needed. Fire should be used to maximum advantage, to keep the lower limbs removed.

A trade off will occur at some point — even with longleaf — when these plantings are “in the way,” and effect the groundcover and visibility. It is up to the individual landowner to decide how much of this they can let stand, and how much to thin at a young age.

Early and heavy thinning is best for the groundcover quail need, but not for the trees; what’s the very best for the trees, prolongs the pain for the quail and quail hunter.

A good compromise may be thinning to 100 trees/acre, as soon as they are old enough to sell (approx. 18 years), which will help form a good tree later in life, and not be in the way too long in the grand scheme of things. Planting pines in small patches may seem like wasted effort, but if you do some every year, before you know it you have a lot.

Spraying herbicide after thinning and hardwood removal can help keep competition for smaller pine trees to a minimum

For the many thousands of acres of already existing planted pines on quail properties, commercial thinning and burning at as early an age as possible is recommended to restore the groundcover.

There is an obvious trade off here with timber revenue, as well as future tree quality. Trees thinned too heavy at an early age have too many limbs, and grow out instead of up. Taken to the extreme, they resemble open grown “wolf” trees later in life and are of poor timber quality.

Reducing these stands to a “plantation cut” is best done in steps, if long-term timber quality is a consideration. If done strictly for quail, then it does not matter.

Careful thought should be put into creating new larger pine plantings, as studies have shown that closed canopy planted pine stands on or even adjacent to quail land can cause problems, such as harboring an abundance of Cooper’s hawks that will hunt on the adjoining acreage. Intensive pine plantings should be on areas away from quail courses, if at all possible.

How many hardwoods should I keep?

Encroachment of mid and overstory hardwood in pine uplands became a common problem on quail lands during the 1980s and 1990s, due to the diminished combustibility of old field groundcover. These hardwoods had sort of “snuck up” on those of us who see this land every day.

Reducing these hardwoods has been demonstrated to be an important component of managing uplands for quail, as hardwoods shade out the groundcover, further reduce the efficiency of fire, and harbor many of the quail’s natural enemies.

This type of work has now been done on hundreds of thousands of acres of managed quail land in recent years, with consistent benefits in population densities on areas that already had good habitat and quail numbers.

The combination of improved groundcover growth and reduction in predator numbers, now commonly referred to in the area as the “new ground effect,” increases populations through increased adult survival and reproductive success.

Many properties in our region have achieved their highest recorded hunting success two or three years following upland hardwood reduction. Species and distribution of individual hardwood trees after this type of operation is largely a matter of landowner preference, but is generally one mature tree every five acres or so.

These remnant trees are not especially important for quail management, but do have value to other wildlife and for aesthetics.

Remember, here we are talking about removing hardwoods from the uplands, and not trying to convert bottomland hardwood sites to quail land. Opening up sites that are difficult to burn or too wet to put a tractor on reliably are best left alone — let the shade manage them. In most cases a wise manager familiar with the property can “define the edge” of what is manageable and what is not.

Thinning tactics

Management of pine timber harvest and hardwood clean-up operations are important and should be done by those with this type of work experience on managed land.

Using contractors and crews with both experience and good reputations is a must.

If possible, much of this work should be done between hunting season and quail nesting season (March – May).

Care needs to be taken, in every case, to not rut up the woods, skin bark from residual trees, leave high stumps, or tear up roads. Hardwood operations can take many forms, from a merchantable timber sale to a D8 bulldozer. If hardwoods are cut, it is a good idea to herbicide spray the fresh cut stumps as soon as possible to prevent resprouting. If they are pushed up or sheared, this is not necessary or feasible, although some resprouting from root stock may occur, and will have to be dealt with later.

Whether or not to burn piles in the same year they are made depends on the owner’s preference, and tree species piled.

It does not hurt to leave them a year on sandy sites, where a lot of cover was knocked down, as our studies have shown they were used readily by quail, and likely helped survival until the cover grew back. They are awkward to hunt around, however, as well as unsightly.

On good sites, it is probably best to burn piles the year they are made, and then use the sites for cover patch plantings of some sort.

For hardwoods, it is possible to burn them after being piled for about two weeks. Never leave piles more than one year, as they then become a negative; predators of many types will begin to live in them. Pine piles should be burned the year they are made, as soon as they are dry enough, and need to be kept clean (i. e., no dirt), raked, and piled tight so they will burn.

About the Author
Tall Timbers
Welcome to our collection of articles that were either a group effort by several staff members or were authored by former staff members. In some cases, additional author information is included in the article. Enjoy!
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