Prescribed Fire for Quail
Jason Davis and Justin Bryan
Prescribed burning or Prescribed Fire is becoming more recognized and accepted as a practical and necessary range management tool in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Prescribed burning refers to the act of burning designated rangeland under a certain “prescription” or specific environmental parameters from which to achieve a designated goal (ex. stimulate warm season grass production ~ increase the quality and quantity of forage for cattle). These parameters, such as direction of the wind/speed, relative humidity, fuel load (pounds per acre of grass), and temperature are strict and must be followed by those conducting the burn. Each of these “conditions” and how they fluctuate during the burn will have an impact (positive or negative) regarding the success of the technique.
Introducing fire into your management plan can add many benefits to your rangeland; such as promotion of annual forbs – important for all wildlife, suppression of invasive plant species such as salt cedar, increase native grass production – important for livestock and wildlife, and disease control. Let’s explore these benefits and how they directly apply to wildlife management- quail habitat to be more specific.
First, it is important to consider that fire was once a major player in properly functioning ecosystems. Ecologists believe that historically wildfires occurred across our country’s rangelands on a 3-7 year cycle; in some instances, frequently enough to maintain vast amounts of grassland. Therefore, it stands to reason that our native wildlife and habitats have adapted very well to fire and quail are no exception being often referred to as the “firebird”.
Annual Forb Production (food):
Annual forbs are essential for a quail’s diet. A few good examples are crotons, ragweeds, and broomweed which provide a smooth, hard seed that quail desire. They mature quickly, are great seed producers, and their leaves and seeds are in general readily consumed by quail. Forbs are what we call primary succession plants. Meaning they are among the first plants to grow after some type of soil disturbance, e.g. fire. Forbs become less frequent as soil disturbance ceases and the vegetative canopy becomes decadent.
To maximize production of annual forbs, burns need to be conducted from September 1-Feburary 1 on a 3-5 year cycle. Enough heat should be generated to scarify seed for germination but not so much, to sterilize the ground. Ideal conditions would be fuel loads of at least 1,500 lbs. /acre, 20-25% RH, ambient temperatures above 50 degrees, and 15-20 mph wind speeds. Consider burning only 1/4 to 1/3 of a site per year to create more vegetative diversity and vertical structure within the quail’s world
Native Grass Production (nesting):
Quail need native grasses, largely for reproduction purposes. Little Bluestem and Silver Bluestem (both warm season grasses) are among preferred nesting sites for quail. Quail will burrow in the old growth of these particular grasses with the intention of concealing their eggs from predators. Fire will, for a season, eliminate the old growth used for nesting. However, seed banks (old seed deposited in the soil over the years) will germinate from the heat, and competition among other plants will be suppressed. With the goal of stimulating new grass production and regrowth of establish plants, more nesting sites per acre (ideally at least 250 per acre) render quail nests less likely to be predated upon.
To promote warm season native grasses a burn should be conducted between January -May 15, when they have less than one inch of fresh growth, and on a 3- 5 year rotation depending on the hydrology of the burn location. Once again a mosaic burn, which creates vertical vegetative diversity and spares some full growth plants, is much more beneficial to quail than a 100% complete burn. Importantly, as with all prescribed fires, one should try to implement them just prior to a rain event. If timed well, this provides for the immediate regrowth of plants to begin.
Invasive and Woody Species Control:
Plant species such as prickly pear, mesquite, red berry juniper can take over rangelands in a hurry if they are left unchecked, especially those rangelands subjected to intense grazing. Fire applied at the correct time of year is an effective way to control these woody plants. However, enough heat is necessary to suppress these plant species; ideally heavy fuel loads of 2,000-3,000 lbs/acre, low relative humidity >25, high temperature >75 degrees, and wind speeds of 15-20 mph are required. Removal of high densities of these plants will leave room for more beneficial vegetation to grow. Such as warm season grasses, annual forbs, desirable short brush species such as plum, lotebush, or agarito.
For cedar control, aim to burn September 1-May 20 on a 3-5 year cycle. The fire will be most effective when the trees are <5ft tall. Therefore the delay of treatment only increases the overall cost of managing these problematic species. For deciduous woody plants, ex. sumac and locust, you’ll want to burn April 1-May 15 when buds start to swell. Once again, best results are obtained with burning when the plants are less than 5 feet tall, burn 2 consecutive years if possible, and then every 3-5 years after that for maintenance.
Fire is a complex tool for wildlife and range management and in this article I have just begun to scratch the service of its ecology. Burning can yield incredible results for your rangeland, but it is always important to ask yourself before burning, “What are my goals for this burn?” Keep in mind that your results will have much to do with timing and how soon rain is falling on the site. Thus a February burn will yield much different result than a June burn. Contact a local professional to ask about the best way to incorporate prescribed fire into your ranch management plan.
For more information regarding prescribed fire, wildlife, and habitat management on your property feel free to contact us at Hall and Hall.