A variety of choices and good distribution should be the goal when managing the “food court.” Preserving or encouraging important native food producers is the best and cheapest way of providing a diverse selection of foods. Learning to recognize these plants, even investing in a native plant identification guide, are time and money well spent.
How do you encourage native species? DISC! DISC! DISC! A bank of dormant seeds lies at or just beneath the ground’s surface. Soil disturbance by discing will cause these to germinate. Discing, particularly in the fall, frequently encourages ragweed, one of the most important foods taken by quail. Additionally, by discing, seeds with a hard outer surface will be scratched, or scarified, allowing them to sprout. Allow disced native food strips to remain fallow for two or three years and then rejuvenate with another discing.
Fire also induces dormant seeds to germinate. By burning, competition is reduced and seeds suspended in a layer of duff can reach the soil. As with discing, fire also will scarify hard-coated seeds.
Plantings to supplement the winter supply of food have probably been used more frequently and over a longer period than any other habitat enhancement. These plantings have been called food patches, food plots or food strips. The latter best describes the configuration that will provide the greatest benefit to quail. Long, narrow strips make these far more accessible than a configuration that might be described as a patch or plot. Increased edge and excellent travel lanes are added benefits of making food plantings in lengthy strips. Food strips should be 15-20 feet wide and closely parallel vegetation that is suitable for escape.
There is no need to work and plant the same strip annually. Where there is room, prepare and seed a new strip adjoining and parallel to that worked the previous year. Move over to new ground again the third year. In the fourth year, rework the first year’s strip and continue this rotation. Strips left fallow from previous years may, or may not, produce a volunteer crop from the earlier seeding but will grow an array of annual weeds. In either event, seed production and feeding conditions will generally remain good for three years, and with such a rotation, both cultivated and native foods will be available.
While there are numerous good choices among the seed species that can be planted, probably none have the well-deserved reputation of the annual lespedezas-Korean and common. The seed produced by these have been recognized as a favorite bobwhite food for years. Common lespedeza (the major variety is Kobe) is better for planting in the Coastal Plain. In the Piedmont and mountains, Korean is better suited. Neither competes well with aggressive plants, but are otherwise capable of growing under most conditions, even poor soils. Though Korean and Kobe are annuals, their ability to persistently reseed gives them a perennial quality. (Sericia lespedeza, frequently recommended for wildlife planting in the past, has little value for quail. Its food value is poor and more desirable plantings can be made for cover.) Korean and Kobe lespedeza are not native plants and some feel they can become invasive. If you are not comfortable planting non-natives consult your biologist for recommendations using native plants. Partridge pea is another well-known bobwhite favorite, which reseeds itself well. Reseeding of both annual lespedeza and partridge pea can be encouraged with the help of an occasional light discing. Grain sorghum, buckwheat and soybeans-if deer are not too numerous-are other good choices for food strips.