Creating Brush Piles for Quail

Often, when trees are cleared from pastures and grasslands, they’re left haphazardly where they fell or pushed into large, dense piles. Downed trees, whether in piles or not, are generally left to be burned. That’s not a problem when downed trees are left scattered, but typical large brush piles can be problematic for pheasants and quail. 
Generally, when trees are piled for “wildlife” or burning, it is done with a bulldozer and downed trees are pushed together in large, dense piles. These piles will persist for many years, unless burned. They will house wildlife species, but usually, those species are not ones we want to encourage when managing for gamebirds. Since they are too thick to allow birds to flush from within the pile, they won’t use typical brush piles. Instead, those piles become dens for predators like skunks and raccoons. 

Small Projects, Big Results

With very little extra effort, brush piles can be created that will be used for escape and thermal cover by pheasants and quail. These “downed tree structures” are especially handy when trying to enhance quail habitat quickly, and can save a landowner money by utilizing what is essentially waste to produce a required element of quail habitat—without having to plant native shrubs (that may take years to establish and fill in before being usable to birds). 
Instead of using a dozer to push debris and tree trunks into large piles, simply stack the downed trees next to one another in just a couple of layers. If selectively cutting trees or thinning dense stands of trees, those selected for cutting can even be felled in such a way that crowns fall next to each other to create the piles. By stacking trees next to each other, not pushed into thick piles, they are open enough that predators won’t be as inclined to make dens under them and they are loose enough to allow birds to flush from under the pile if needed—all while deterring avian predation. 

The Price is Right

The goal of this process is to create an artificial shrub thicket to add necessary structure to an area where growing shrubs like sandhill plum or fragrant sumac isn’t possible. In keeping with that, you’ll want to remember what you’re trying to emulate with these piles. They should be too thick for you to walk through the pile, but a softball or small soccer ball thrown into the middle of the pile should bounce through the branches before eventually hitting the ground—think Plinko on The Price is Right. Piles should be constructed to dimensions of 30’ x 50’ x 4’-8’ tall. 

What Tree Type?

Any type of tree can be used to create these piles. Cedars are often a little thick to be used right after cutting and piling, but will make great, long lasting artificial thickets after they have dried out. Deciduous trees like elm, hedge, and locust will make great protective cover right away, but piles made from softer woods like elm or hackberry may not last quite as long as other species. As those with brush problems know, fighting tree encroachment is a never-ending process. There will be other trees that move in over time that can be used to renovate or replace degraded artificial thickets.

-Zac Eddy is a senior Farm Bill wildlife biologist for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever in Kansas. Find a biologist near you.