Through much effort, conservationists have constructed a quail wonderland on Jackson-Bienville WMA.
I couldn’t help but note the irony. It was a classic show-and-tell.Three clear and plaintive “bobwhite” calls drifted through the pines to the ears of our crew — calls made by three different birds.
I was part of a group visiting the Jackson-Bienville Wildlife Management Area five years ago on a field trip to observe — and hear — what has been accomplished on behalf of quail and other species of birds and wildlife, game and non-game alike.
At one of our stops, the tour guide was explaining how the tract of timber we were viewing had been enhanced to make it a more desirable home for wildlife. The call of the three bobwhite quail, a sound once prevalent over these North Louisiana hills, was right on cue, and gave reason to believe that the situation regarding these birds was again on the positive side of the ledger.
Quail numbers have been in decline for nearly a quarter century across the South. A plethora of reasons have been offered for the disappearance of “King Bob” from his traditional habitat.
Some say quail numbers began declining about the time fire ant mounds began springing up. On a field trip to Idlewild Plantation in Southeast Louisiana last summer, our group saw evidence that fire ants do indeed take a toll on quail nests.
On Jackson-Bienville, though, it appeared that other factors were more to blame.
While nobody has offered iron-clad proof of any one thing that has led to the decline in quail numbers, it is generally agreed that land-use change across the South has been one of the more significant reasons.
Decades ago, the small family farm and truck patch was a common sight across the South, and it seemed that every piece of such rural property was home to a few coveys of quail.
It’s hard to find a small farm across North Louisiana today. Instead, much of the land has been converted to housing developments, industrial sites or to growing another crop that is vital to the state’s economy — timber.
In 1997, a wildlife biologist with what was then Willamette Industries, a major timber company in North Louisiana that has since become a part of Weyerhaeuser Company, had a vision. Luke Lewis stopped his truck along a power company highline right-of-way on Jackson-Bienville, and instead of seeing quail, deer, turkey or wild hogs foraging for food beneath the power line, he saw a thick growth of brush.
This particular line was owned by the Entergy Corporation, and had been built three years earlier, linking the towns of Hodge and Grambling. The power line covered 21 acres as it crossed several miles of the management area.
What if, Lewis pondered, this right-of-way could be cleared and converted from a woody thicket into a continuous linear food plot? Lewis’ fascination with the possibilities led him to an Entergy official and friend, Billy Sanford. Lewis shared his vision with Sanford, who enthusiastically endorsed the idea.
Dreaming of seeing a green ribbon of wildlife foods where worthless brush now stood was one thing. Making it happen was a monumental undertaking.
Fast forward to the field trip I took five years ago. In a short four years, remarkable changes had been made, not only on the Entergy right-of-way but other areas on Jackson-Bienville as well. Here’s how it happened…
Lewis and Sanford realized that the task before them was too expensive and time consuming for either his employer or Entergy to undertake alone. Their dream was to share their vision with representatives of other groups who had an interest in this 32,000-acre WMA.
The response was enthusiastic.
Steve Hebert, wildlife supervisor for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries who oversees the management area, cast his hat in the ring. So did representatives of Monsanto Chemical Company, which had the means to eradicate much of the brush that needed removing.
The Forestry and Wildlife Department at Louisiana Tech saw this project as an ideal field laboratory for students. Other groups — Quail Unlimited, the North-Central Louisiana Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, and several other organizations — climbed aboard the bandwagon, believing this was a worthwhile project.
Today, the brush-covered Entergy line is a sea of green, low-growing wildlife foods, the result of a cooperative effort of a number of groups and entities.
The efforts of these individuals evolved into the Jackson-Bienville Wildlife Habitat Program. Since its inception, thousands of dollars have been donated for work on the area, work that includes the purchase of goods and services such as seeds and fertilizer, dozer, back-hoe and bush-hog work on food plots, clearings, woods roads and power lines. It also includes supplies and labor for fences, bluebird boxes and such.
The program has since become incorporated, which means that as a non-profit organization, donations are tax deductible.
Fast forward to 2006. The work begun nearly a decade ago is ongoing, and quail numbers continue to be steady on Jackson-Bienville WMA.
Jeff Johnson is an LDWF wildlife biologist who works on the management area.
“I would say that today, Jackson-Bienville offers the best public-land quail hunting in the state,” he said. “However, while the quail are there, they are hard to hunt because of habitat constraints. There are still plenty of thickets there, and once deer season opens, the quail seem to head for the thick stuff to avoid danger.”
At the same time, efforts to save another bird, smaller than quail, are working to enhance the situation for quail as well.
At first glance, you’d be hard-pressed to find many similarities between bobwhite quail and red-cockaded woodpeckers, other than the fact both have feathers and both fly.
Quail spend practically all their lives on the ground; their flight is in short bursts that every quail hunter knows can scare the daylights out of you when a covey is inadvertently flushed from underfoot.
Woodpeckers, on the other hand, spend very little time on the ground; they make their living in gravity-defying excursions up and down tree trunks probing for insects.
Despite their differences, the red-cockaded woodpecker is proving a valuable ally to bobwhite quail.
The red-cockaded woodpecker is an endangered species that must have large, old pines to make nesting and roosting cavities. They do best when there is a minimum of hardwood midstory around their cavity trees. A well-developed hardwood midstory makes it easier for predators, such as the black rat snake, to enter nest cavities to eat the eggs and hatchlings.
Coincidentally, bobwhite quail don’t do well either in such thick brushy habitat. With proper habitat management, the needs of both the woodpecker and quail can be met in the same area.
On Jackson-Bienville, Weyerhaeuser is cooperating with LDWF and a number of other private organizations to enhance quail habitat.
One management practice that benefits both quail and red-cockaded woodpeckers is hardwood control. The hardwood midstory is controlled around red-cockaded woodpecker nesting sites, using a variety of techniques including cutting, herbicides and prescribed burning.
These habitat management tools can be used individually or together; however, when prescribed burning is utilized together with mowing or herbicides, grasses and herbaceous plants quickly re-occupy the understory. This creates a diverse understory with an abundance of natural grasses and herbaceous plants that quail need.
LDWF Wildlife Division Supervisor Steve Hebert oversees Jackson-Bienville for the department. Hebert is well aware of how Weyerhaeuser’s work around red-cockaded woodpecker colonies is benefiting wildlife.
“The primary benefit to quail of clearing brush around woodpecker nesting colonies is to enhance the diversity of understory vegetation. The more diversity, the more game species prosper. These sites, while being beneficial to red-cockaded woodpeckers, are producing good quail habitat, much like the traditional open understory habitats old time quail hunters remember,” said Hebert.
“In earlier days, there was lots of diversity. Farms and pea patches were typical around the countryside, creating ideal habitat for quail. Quail hunters today are benefiting from woodpecker colony sites. Instead of following the dogs through miles of dense understory, they’re moving from colony site to colony site, knowing there’s a good chance they’ll find quail.
“The habitat enhancements in the colony sites that are targeted toward quail also provide habitat for wild turkeys. They’re excellent bugging areas for turkey poults, and they provide ideal nesting habitat for both turkeys and quail.”
Quail and wild turkeys are not the only species benefiting from Weyerhauser’s work with the red-cockaded woodpecker. Non-game species find the areas around colony sites to their liking as well, which provides opportunities for other outdoor enthusiasts.
“Non-consumptive users of Jackson-Bienville can visit these sites to view and photograph wildlife,” Hebert said. “Songbirds, wild flowers and butterflies are also in abundance around these sites.
“If Weyerhaeuser were not managing for the red-cockaded woodpecker, this prime wildlife habitat would not be there. No doubt, it’s a win-win situation for the woodpecker and other species of wildlife as well.”
Alan Boyd is a forester for Weyerhaeuser whose area of responsibility includes Jackson-Bienville. Boyd echoed what Johnson said regarding the movement of quail around the area, especially when deer season opens.
“In spring, you can hear quail all over the area; there are lots of birds there today,” he said. “However, once deer season opens and hunters hit the woods, it’s as if the quail disappear; you hardly hear or see one. It’s not that they left the area; they spend their time down in the thickets to get away from all the activity associated with deer hunters.
“I’m encouraged, though, that what we’re doing for the red cockaded woodpecker is beneficial to quail. Keeping the brush knocked back with fire and herbicides gives quail, as well as turkeys, a nice place to forage while benefiting woodpeckers.
“We now have about 4,000 acres of habitat where we’re doing habitat control for woodpeckers, and will eventually work on more than 5.000 acres. In addition, we have created small openings throughout the management area that are connected by wood roads that make it easier for quail and turkeys to move about.
“Quail hunters who want to give the birds a try on Jackson-Bienville will probably have better luck the latter part of the season after deer season closes. Hopefully, the birds will vacate the thickets and use the sites where we’re working with woodpeckers more, making them more accessible to hunters.”
Quail hunters, would you like to try hunting your favorite bird without having to drive all the way out to Texas? Wait until deer season officially ends, and plan a trip to Jackson-Bienville WMA and locate some of the many areas set aside for management of red cockaded woodpeckers. You’ll find suitable habitat, and there’s a good chance you’ll get to see your prized pointer locked up on a covey on lands where the quail, thanks to a lot of hard work, are making a comeback.
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