Enhancing Traditional Quail Management to Benefit Songbirds

Quail managers have a unique opportunity to benefit early-successional songbirds.  Several birds of conservation concern have restricted habitat requirements.  Not all traditional quail management practices will benefit these species, and not all management recommendations for these songbirds are ideal for quail.  However, there is a significant area of overlap where multiple management objectives can be met.  In North Carolina, the Wildlife Resources Commission’s Cooperative Upland habitat Restoration and Enhancement (CURE) program is seeking ways to restore habitat for multiple early-successional birds on private and public lands.  Following are management recommendations for several species of concern in North Carolina whose habitat requirements may be compatible with quail.

Grassland Species

Eastern MeadowlarkEastern Meadowlark

Conservation priority:  Medium

Habitat:  Breeding habitat is dense grassland, hayfield, + pasture, less than 75cm (30 inches) high with at least 25% herbaceous (grass+forb) cover and <35% shrub coverage.  Ideal habitat has >70% grass cover, >90% total herbaceous cover 10-35cm tall and <10% shrub coverage.  Occasional perch sites are desirable, including tall forbs, tree, fence, or telephone wire. Territories average 7 acres.  This species is moderately area sensitive.  In winter, meadowlarks forage for seeds in a variety of open habitats.

Nesting season: April through August. Overwinters in eastern US.

Management:  Provide larger (15+ acres, bigger is better) grassland areas with less edge (i.e. large, block habitats) where possible.  It is better for habitat patches to be located next to other open habitats (e.g. crop field rather than woodlot) and to be close (<1 mile) to additional habitat patches.  Create “feathered” edges (through burning or thinning) where grassland is located next to a woodlot. If possible, avoid cutting hay from April 15 to August 15.  If hay must be cut, leave at least 6 inch stubble. Burn 25-50% of grassland blocks each year in early spring (late Feb. to late March) or late fall (late September through November).  In tall, dense grassland patches, spot mowing or other disturbance in the fall thru early spring may help provide some shorter grass conditions for meadowlarks.  Light grazing may be beneficial.  Meadowlarks can tolerate slightly higher grass than grasshopper sparrow.  Meadowlarks will use cool-season grass pastures.

Loggerhead Shrike

Conservation priority:  High

Habitat: Savanna, agricultural landscapes with short grass (4-18 inches) and frequent perches.  Nests in tall shrubs and trees, forages in open country.  Caches food on thorns or barbed wire.

Nesting season: Mid-March to end of June. Overwinters in Southeast.

Management:  At the landscape scale, manage for a patchwork of grassland or other openings with scattered trees and shrubs.  The shrike is moderately area sensitive, with 10 acres a minimum habitat size and >50 acres ideal. Within grassland patches, use fire or other disturbance to reduce ground litter, create some standing dead vegetation, and prevent the grass from becoming too thick, tall, and overgrown.  Mowing or haying can be beneficial, but should leave 4-6” grass height, and should leave a few taller grass patches for winter cover for prey. Planting thorny shrubs provides locations for caching food. Hedgerows or isolated trees, particularly dense or thorny shrubs and trees (such as cedar or wild plum), provide both perching and nesting sites. Minimize use of insecticides which bio-accumulate in high levels in shrikes.  Provide elevated perches (trees, posts, etc) where lacking (minimum 2-3 per acre). 5-10 foot tall posts wrapped with barbed wire at the top make ideal perching, feeding and food caching stations. Locate posts in the middle of larger openings where they will open up foraging space for shrikes (and kestrels) and will be less likely to be used by larger predatory hawks. 

Grasshopper Sparrow

Conservation priority:  High

Habitat:  Ideal habitat is open grassland or pasture with about 25% grass component, about 24 inches high or shorter.  Habitat quality diminishes as litter and shrubs increase.  Requires about 25% bare ground available at ground level (i.e. less than 75% of ground covered by litter).  Grasshopper sparrows will use higher and denser vegetation in winter than in summer.  Somewhat area sensitive- larger blocks of habitat with less edge better.  Grasshopper sparrows do not tend to utilize linear habitats such as field borders.

Nesting season in North Carolina:  late April – mid August.  Winters on SE Coastal Plain.

Management:  Provide large (20+ acres) grassland areas where possible.  It is better for habitat patches to be located next to other open habitats (e.g. crop field rather than woodlot) and to be close (<1 mile) to additional habitat patches.  Create “feathered” edges (through burning or thinning) where grassland is located next to a woodlot.  Short bunch grasses (e.g. little bluestem) provide better habitat than sod.  Mowing, burning, or other light disturbance prior to the nesting season can be beneficial. Grazing is preferable to mowing. If hay must be cut, leave at least 6 inch stubble, and consider cutting hay in sections to leave some nesting cover.  Burn at least once every 2 years.  Growing season burning in marginal grasshopper sparrow habitat may be beneficial.  Light grazing of established grassland may help provide desired vegetative patchiness and shorter grass.  If a nest is lost, grasshopper sparrows will re-nest but need at least 26 days to pull off a successful nest.

Shrubland Species

Field Sparrow

Conservation priority:  Medium

Habitat:  Grassland with scattered shrubs.  Ideal habitat contains 15-35% cover in shrubs <5 feet tall and greater than 40% ground cover of grasses taller than 5 inches.  Some bare ground is also beneficial to field sparrows.  Breeding habitat needs of field sparrows may be the most closely aligned with quail of all songbirds.

Nesting season: April – July.  Overwinters in Southeast.

Management:  Managing for field sparrows will require allowing some small shrubs to grow up, while maintaining a grass-forb understory. Creating or maintaining small thickets of "suckering" persimmon, hawthorn, sassafras or sumac, intermixed with grasses and some bare (recently disturbed) spots will create good habitat.  Field sparrows suffer from heavy nest predation, particularly in field borders.  Creating wider, larger, non-linear habitat areas may reduce predation rates.

Yellow-breasted Chat

Conservation priority:  Medium

Habitat:  Low, dense shrubby vegetation without closed canopy.  Preferred territory will be adjacent to mature bottomland or deciduous timber stand.  Tends to nest in thicker and older clearcuts (~3-8 years old).   Strong preference for blackberry brambles.

Nesting season: Mid-May through mid-August.

Management: Moderately area sensitive, so larger habitat areas are better.  Clearcutting is the most beneficial forestry technique for this species.  May use pine woods if thick understory stimulated by thin + burn.  Management should focus on creating and maintaining thick shrub areas and blackberry thickets.  Species is highly mobile both within and between years, so will quickly respond to new habitat that is created.

Prairie Warbler

Conservation priority:  Medium

Habitat:  Shrubby areas (including old fields and clear cuts) without closed canopy.  Similar to yellow-breasted chat, though can show up in some younger clear cuts.

Nesting season: Early May through end of July. 

Management: Moderately area sensitive, so larger habitat areas are better.  Manage for dense shrubs, hardwood or conifer.

Open Woodland/Savanna Species

Bachman’s sparrow

Conservation priority:  High

Habitat:  Open pine woods with lush ground cover, especially Andropogon (broomstraw/bluestem) and Aristida (wiregrass), with shrubs no greater than height of grasses.  Also clearcuts and right-of-ways with grass and forb ground cover.  Nest is on ground under a “bunch grass”.  Favorite winter seed is from panic grasses (genus Panicum and Dichanthelium).

Nesting season: Mid April – Mid August.  Overwinters in Southeast.

Management:  Thin mature pine woods to allow sufficient light to reach forest floor.  Burn at least once every 3 years.  Plant or encourage panic grasses, when possible.

Brown-headed Nuthatch

Conservation priority:  Medium

Habitat:  Strongly associated with mature, open pine forest with little hardwood understory + midstory, though will occupy younger pine stands if they have the open structure and reduced mid-story.  Nests low (~3-6 feet off ground) in snags.  Forages on large, live pine trees.  Prefers habitat with grassy understory, though forages mostly in canopy.  Will nest in nest box or other artificial cavity if mature live pines are available nearby.

Nesting season: Mid February – Early June, most nesting March through May. Overwinters in Southeast.

Management:  Maintain old-growth pine.  Thin mature pine stands, retaining older trees.  Retain and/or create snags.  During logging operations, leave some tall stumps (~6 foot high) from trees 6-10 inches dbh, or girdle trees to create snags (aim for ~1 snag/acre).  Control hardwood mid-story growth.  Burning is beneficial for controlling hardwoods, encouraging grasses, and creating snags.  Brown-headed nuthatches rarely recolonize sites where they have been extirpated, so it is important to maintain populations on sites where they currently exist.  Because of sedentary nature, mature pine habitats should be left as intact as possible, fragmentation will likely be detrimental.  Clear-cutting without leaving seed trees and snags is detrimental to nuthatches.