Managing Land with Fire for Bobwhite Quail & Whitetail Deer

Jan 19, 2022 | Tips & Tricks, Whitetail Hunting | 2 comments

Medicine for the Land

It’s undeniable, throughout history fire has shaped most of our landscapes, specifically in the Midwest. Despite this, natural fires have mostly been eradicated in the Midwest due to the development of roads and land conversion to less flammable vegetation types. The majority of fires today in this region are prescribed fires used for management purposes. Fire creates a variety of plant responses and the majority of those responses are positive for many species of wildlife. Bobwhite quail and whitetail deer in particular, respond extremely well to fire and the vegetative changes fire promotes.
Pressure Canned Wild Game Meat

The Firebird, aka, Bobwhite Quail

controlled burns for bobwhite quail
Any self-respecting bobwhite quail manager from Kansas to Florida will tell you fire and quail go together like peanut butter and jelly. So much so in fact, quail are often referred to as the “Firebird”. With the exception of the western ranges, bobwhites persist in areas where fire isn’t utilized in management, but they RARELY THRIVE without fire.

Mobility and Bugs

controlled burns for thermoregulations and bugs

Mobility and Thermoregulation

It’s no surprise that quail prefer recently burned areas. Most of the Midwest receives over 40 inches of rainfall annually which results in native grasses becoming very thick. This thick grass becomes impossible for quail to navigate. Not only do quail need adequate space to move between plants while foraging, they also need the ability to avoid brushing up against vegetation covered in dew each morning. Young quail cannot thermoregulate the first 14 days of life, so getting wet on a cool summer morning from brushing against dew covered plants often results in hypothermia and an early death.

The Whitetail King

controlled burns for whitetail deer
Prescribed fire and whitetail deer management are seldom discussed in the same sentence. Unlike bobwhite quail, fire benefits to deer habitat have not been fully realized and embraced. The paradigm is slowly changing though and the use of fire needs more consideration by deer managers due to the incredible results.

Whitetail deer have become king across most properties managed for recreational purposes in the Midwest and fire can be used in both open lands and timbered habitats to naturally manipulate vegetation growth and significantly increase available deer forage. Furthermore, prescribed fire can create more secure cover, which is an often-overlooked habitat type necessary for quality deer management.

build a fire plan with basemap

The Flowers

Most deer hunters and land managers are well aware of how important hard mast like acorns are for deer in the fall, but many whitetail enthusiasts fail to realize the importance of forbs (flowering plants) in a deer’s diet. Deer consume a minimal amount of grass, but forbs comprise over 70% of their diet during the summer months. Burning grasslands or old fields at the appropriate times can reduce grass dominance and increase forb abundance. Depending on whether the site is dominated by native warm season grasses or exotic cool season grasses will affect appropriate timing of fire to get the desired results. Burning warm season grasses during late summer/fall or throughout the winter will reduce the vigor of grasses the following growing season, thus allowing forbs to become a larger component of the area.
controlled burns for important plants
Summer is a critical time for deer because does are lactating, fawns are growing, and buck’s antlers are developing under a shroud of velvet. All these stages of life require large amounts of energy and having access to quality food is extremely important. One reason hunters and managers haven’t recognized the importance fire plays in deer management is the species of plants produced by a well-timed fire are often considered “weeds”. For example, common and giant ragweed is an annual forb that is despised by most people due to its effects on allergy sufferers. However, ragweed is relished by whitetails and happens to be one of the most nutritious plants deer consume during the dog days of summer. Several species of perennial forbs are also palatable to whitetail deer, such as partridge pea, Illinois bundleflower, sensitive briar and countless others. However, managers need to recognize that forbs are not desirable at every stage of growth. I personally witnessed partridge pea being avoided in July in favor of nearby pigweed in a new pollinator planting I had recently created. When August arrived, the deer set their sights on every partridge pea plant in the pollinator field, diminishing most of the pea plants down to half their former height over the course of two weeks. Had my observations only occurred once or twice during the summer I would have thought the deer had no interest in partridge pea, but continuing to observe throughout the entire growing season allowed me to recognize the changes in preference as the summer progressed.

The Woodies

a Bone Collector controlled burn in Georgia
Woody browse is another natural food source critically important to deer throughout the year, in particular during the late winter high stress period. Any tree reaching beyond 5 feet tall is no longer available for a deer to browse. Prescribed burning under the right conditions will top-kill many smaller saplings and result in stump sprouting. These stump sprouts are within reach for deer to consume for the next year or two. Forested acreages that have prescribed fire applied every few years produce more than three times the deer forage compared to unburned timber. These same forested acres also produce a variety of shade tolerant forbs following a burn, many of which are consumed by deer as well.

Both stump sprouts and vegetative growth promoted in the timber by fire creates more secure cover as well. Whitetail deer feel much more comfortable bedding in areas providing visual obstruction than they do laying in wide open timber with nothing but leaf litter covering the ground. This comfort helps reduce stress and reduce their need to travel further in search of adequate bedding cover. Having the same plants and resprouting trees provide both food and cover within the same unit is the best possible way to maximize the use of forested acres on the property.

life after a prescribed fire

Rx Fire – Proven through the Centuries

Prescribed fire is a proven technique for manipulating habitat to favor whitetails and bobwhites wherever they live. It also happens to be the cheapest management tool I use. Several burn units totaling hundreds of acres can be burned during a single day under the right conditions, the effects of which will be used by target wildlife for several years. More importantly, fire is a natural disturbance. Wildlife species thrived for centuries prior to our occupation of these lands under Mother Nature’s influence of fire. How can we argue with Mother Nature when we all know “mother knows best”.
benefits for bobwhite quail
benefits for whitetail deer

About the Author:

Kyle Hedges grew up in SE Kansas, pursuing Bobwhite quail with his father and brother. He has spent the last 27 years managing public lands in Kansas and Missouri. Currently he resides in SW Missouri where he manages over 22,000 acres of uplands for small game, deer and turkey. This includes grasslands, old fields, woodlands and glades. He also manages his own family property in SE Kansas for deer, turkey and quail. He considers fire his most useful management tool and enjoys days on the fire line.
biologist Kyle Hedges

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  1. Have there been any studies comparing the pros and cons of rotationally grazing goats, sheep, pigs, turkeys, and/or ducks etc. versus the benefits of prescribed fire to wildlife? I’ve wondered if a good rotational grazing program could achieve the same benefits of prescribed fire while also creating an income opportunity for the landowner. I’d like to understand the disturbance the animals would need to create to achieve the benefits of prescribed fire.

  2. We have utilized grazing with cattle for quail management and it can be used effectively at the proper stocking rates. Cattle tend to reduce think grass and help us promote more forbs. One issue with sheep and goats is they prefer to eat forbs over grass, which isn’t exactly what we want. I’m sure there could be a compromise, but wouldn’t maximize wildlife. Pigs are a whole different beast and their rooting ends up acting more like discing a field. Nit sure ducks or chicken could be used at a scale necessary to make a difference, and chickens would eat the bugs we want for quail food.

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