Longleaf Pine and Bobwhite Quail in the Southeast

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They are not the only pieces of the habitat puzzle, but longleaf pine and controlled burning are key to bringing bobwhites back

By Jacob Comer, Farm Bill Biologist for Quail Forever

The sweet “bob-bob-white” whistle was once a common and familiar sound across the Southeastern United Sates. In many places today the sound of a bobwhite whistle will cause some to halt and reminisce on childhood and young-adult experiences.

Outdoorsmen and women have heard stories of unimaginable quail numbers from those who were lucky enough to have hunted quail in the 1960s and 70s. It can begin to feel as if we too had been there. But the thought of hunting quail ends with the old timers’ stories. 

It is with dedicated sportsmen and women that the future of upland hunting will be determined.
 

Habitat Changes and Challenges

Quail habitat in the South is facing an uphill battle. Approximately 86 percent of the land in the South is privately owned and the number of farms is steadily decreasing while the land is being managed on a much larger scale. 

As the South’s forestland economy transformed from its reliance on tar and turpentine to timber production, vast stands of once-open, fire-maintained longleaf pine were converted to fire-suppressed, densely-planted loblolly pine. State and federal agencies are working aggressively to restore fire-maintained forest to help create suitable quail habitat. But a truly successful rebound of bobwhite quail can only be accomplished with wide-scale, private-land management.
 
The change in forest land to monocultured pine plantations was done out of necessity. Markets became nonexistent for tar-based products, and timber prices for furniture and home building were on the rise.
 
 Above: Ideal longleaf pine savanna quail habitat.

For many landowners in the South, keeping family land meant forfeiting many wildlife benefits to meet market demands. During the initial demand for lumber products, loblolly pine was studied intensively and developed for fast growth. Longleaf pine did not receive much scientific research and was perceived as a far less superior tree for timber revenue.
 

The Longleaf Revolution

As conservation organizations began to realize the shift, more time and money was allocated to universities and nurseries to develop genetically improved longleaf that would have comparable survivability and growth rates to loblolly. Thanks to years of research and persistent collaboration between federal, state, and non-government agencies, the improvements to longleaf production and growth have been dramatic. 

Improved longleaf can now be planted as plugs similar to loblolly. By planting plugs, trees experience less stress during transportation from the tree nursery to the tree planting site while also providing valuable nutrients during the first year’s growth. Landowners are learning they can plant longleaf on sites that are suitable and regain wildlife benefits that were once lost while retaining high profits from timber production.

 Above: Young longleaf pine.

But planting longleaf alone does not answer the question that has loomed around the south for the last half decade: “How do we get bobwhite quail back?”
 

Prescribed Fire Needed

Another piece to the puzzle is prescribed fire. The advantage of planting longleaf over loblolly is that fire can be introduced to longleaf pine stands in as early as 2 years. On the other hand, loblolly normally has fire introduced after its first commercial thinning in 13 to 17 years.
 Above: Burning favors the grassy understory quail need.

Burning young longleaf pine stands helps maintain early successional habitat all the way through final harvest. Newly planted timber stands that are not burned (either longleaf or loblolly) become increasingly less useful to quail with almost no benefit after the sixth year.  

As landowners continue to implement prescribed fire every two to three years in longleaf pine stands, quail habitat will improve.
 

Bring Back the Whistle

There are other management techniques that can be utilized across the south to improve quail populations that go beyond longleaf pine establishment and prescribed fire. None will successfully sustain quail without the cooperation and work of private landowners. For landowners or those that manage property, of any size, I urge you to speak with a biologist and discuss the management of your property and bring back that sweet bob-bob-white whistle to the Southeast.