Manage For Small Game Hunting

Growing healthy populations of doves, rabbits or quail can turn property into a hunting paradise.

Roy Kellett | November 3, 2006

Georgia hunters are blessed to have a long deer season. There aren’t many states with four months on the calendar where one can chase bucks across the state’s widely varied landscape. Another thing we are blessed with in Georgia is an abundance of small-game hunting opportunities. And if you don’t believe folks are doing it, think of the recent explosion in the popularity of squirrel dogs. If you live in a fairly rural area, the number of dog boxes you see in the backs of pickup trucks are just as likely to hold a pack of beagles as a pair of coon hounds, pointers or deer dogs. There are volumes of information filling the local library that is dedicated to managing deer herds. But to find out how to make your property more suitable for the kind of critters you chase with a smoothbore and the ideas of great fun and fellowship in mind, where do you turn?

I turned to three men, each of whom hunts deer and other game animals, but all of whom understand that managing land to benefit the smaller creatures can help every species thrive.

Claibourne Darden, an Atlanta retiree who owns a 500-plus-acre Warren County farm, Dr. Larry
Marchinton, a retired University of Georgia wildlife professor, and Reggie Thackston, WRD’s Private Lands Program Manager and Bobwhite Quail Initiative coordinator, shared their thoughts on making your acreage a haven for doves, rabbits and quail. And while November may seem an odd time to start thinking about management practices for species that are in season, the time to get ready for next year is now.

Doves: Claibourne, who recently hosted an opening-weekend, dove-shoot fund-raiser for the GONetwork SEEDS program, has been managing the deer herd on his Warren County farm since the early 1990s. Over time he has learned what works and doesn’t work for his deer. And some of the things he has discovered have also helped him have enough doves around for some top-notch shooting.

“Back when I started managing for deer, we didn’t know nothing about nothing,” Claibourne said. “That was back when QDM wasn’t something people in this part of the country knew much about.”

Whether your management practices are for deer or small game, Claibourne says a little experimentation goes a long way in helping you understand what works and what doesn’t. On the other hand, Claibourne’s knowledge of what makes the mourning dove tick can save you some time and money when you are trying to have a little shooting action of your own.

At Claibourne’s dove shoot, about 65 people showed up for a little barbecue and fellowship, and a lot of shooting at grey, feathered rockets that came in flying and darting over two separate fields.

“We didn’t have as many birds as normal, but we still had more than anybody else in the area,” Claibourne said.

He attributes that fact to the way his farm is taken care of throughout the year. The property needs to have a few key features, and food planted to benefit doves should be able to sustain a growing number of birds throughout the spring and summer.

Claibourne said the best piece of property for doves should have a mix of habitat types, but having fields is critical. Claibourne believes that a tract with a couple of 40-acre fields might see some flying doves, but to really get the best activity, he likes to concentrate his efforts on openings of five to 15 acres in size.

This month, Claibourne will start planting wheat, a crop that thrives in the winter and will provide doves with a viable food source. The wheat will take some pressure from the deer, but by late May or June it will have headed out and the seeds will harden. You’ll notice doves coming to the wheat in the spring.

About the time the wheat starts to attract doves, he will plant millet on his property. Most people who utilize millet probably think of regular old browntop millet as the best, and Claibourne will plant some, but he’ll also plant dove proso millet, a food source he says doves prefer.

“Lots of folks plant browntop because it’s cheaper, but research shows that if birds can choose between it and dove proso millet, they will feed more exclusively on the dove proso,” Claibourne said.

As a rule, browntop millet will mature in 45 to 50 days, so by planting it in May, the millet provides a new food source for doves that showed up and started feeding on wheat. Dove proso, if planted at the same time, will take another couple of weeks to fully develop seed heads, and as the birds begin feeding on millet, they will have plenty of both types to sustain them.

Claibourne said it’s important to plant the two types of millet separately instead of mixing the seeds together. First of all, it gives both a chance to grow to their fullest potential. Second, it will keep the birds accumulating on your property leading up to the beginning of September and the time to start shooting your trusty shotgun.

The final step Claibourne takes to manage his dove population is to start cutting and burning to get doves in a real feeding mood.

“I start cutting the millet about three weeks before the opening day of dove season,” Claibourne said. “About two weeks out, we cut a little more, and the week before the shoot, we cut it all except for a few strips.”

Claibourne sets a torch to every bit of millet on the ground and leaves the strips alone. The burning cleans up all the litter left from cutting, and it leaves millet seeds on the ground.

“The birds can get to the seed so easy they love it,” Claibourne said.

Because the burning is agricultural burning, and not forestry-type burning, no permit is needed from the state, so cut firebreaks around the mowed millet and light it.

The final key piece of the dove puzzle on your land is whether the birds have somewhere to roost. If you have pine trees and cedars, you have got the type of places doves will light. What they really love, however, is powerlines. Claibourne has one running across one of his fields that he had installed.

“It doesn’t carry any power, it just goes from one end of the field to the other, but the doves love to roost there,” Claibourne said.

Rabbits: Dr. Larry Marchinton says managing for rabbits can be a little more tricky. One wonders when you can see droves of rabbits in any neighborhood in metro Atlanta.

“They like to congregate around dwellings and roadsides for some reason,” Larry said. “But when it comes
to going into the woods and finding them, they are hard to hunt.”

Larry has a reputation for having some of the finest beagle hounds in the state, and he spends four or five days a week working his dogs when rabbit season comes in.

Larry says cover and food are the most important two aspects when it comes to having prime rabbit habitat. Rabbits, which are susceptible to predation from a variety of sources, including hawks, owls, coyotes, foxes and snakes, need dense, nearly impenetrable places to hide. Blackberry bushes, full of briars, as well as brush- piles, give rabbits a place to hide from predators and can provide quite a challenge for an eager pack of beagles.

Such features are characteristic of early succession growth in clearcuts or old field areas where agriculture has given way to natural growth. Larry said such areas also provide plentiful food for cottontails.

“In areas like that, if you get down near the ground, you’ll find lots of little forbs and plants that rabbits need,” Larry said.

Still, you can enhance rabbit habitat by planting supplemental food sources. Larry says brassicas such as
Ladino and Durana clover, kale, and rape make good feed for rabbits. Larry says food for rabbits should be planted within a short dash to cover so rabbits can escape their predators. And planted areas should be small for the same reason.

“A rabbit out in the middle of a big field is in a death trap,” Larry related.

If your property is mostly pines, thinning operations can help open up the canopy, allowing for briar growth and creating brushpiles for rabbits. While Larry said he wasn’t sure of any sure way to create briar growth, he did say herbicides such as Arsenal can take care of plants like fescue that aren’ t good for rabbits without harming briars.

Larry says bushhogging or buring a piece of property every few years can help keep early succession habitat that is critical to rabbits.

Quail: Early succession habitat is also vital to quail. However, of the three small-game species we dis- cussed, quail are perhaps the most delicate. Anyone who has spent time in Georgia’ s woods over the past 30 years knows that quail, once a common part of Georgia’ s landscape, have all but disappeared in many parts of the state. Managing your property for a huntable population of quail will take a little time with the tractor and torch, but it is doable, according to wildlife biologist Reggie Thackston.

One of the major hurdles for quail success is what biologists refer to as “habitat fragmentation.” If you intensively manage your property for quail but you are surrounded by hardwoods, or worse, development, the management practices you implement will take much more work to garner smaller victories. If, on the other hand, your property is managed for quail and is surrounded by farms, you could see bigger returns on your time and money investment.

“If you had 500 acres of early succession type land in north Georgia, you might have a few coveys of birds,” Reggie said. “You can really enhance your odds of raising a good number of birds if you have a co-op with neighboring landowners so more property could be kept in suitable quail habitat.”

Reggie believes that where a piece of property is located is about as important as how nice you can make it for quail.

“The same 500 acres in the upper coastal plain or in southwest Georgia would obviously have a much better chance of holding 500 birds, that’s one per acre, and that’ s strong.”

Reggie explained that the smaller a tract of land, and the more fragmented it is from other places where quail thrive, the more important it becomes to have neighbors who are doing the same things.

To manage your property for quail, you must implement an aggressive program of winter disking and burning, with parts of the property worked on every year so quail will always have places to use as brood range, cover and food.

“Quail thrive on a 1- to 3-year pattern of early succession habitat that should be about one-third clumped, warm-season native grasses, one-third forbs and legumes, and one-third woody vines,” Reggie said.

The native grasses such as wire- grass and broomsedge may grow naturally along fallow field edges if you don’t try to plant all the way to the edges of the woods on a farm property. Also, other early succession plants such as ragweed, beggar’s lice, or partridge peas, all staples of the quail diet, can be laying in a dormant seed bank, or you can purchase them to plant in an area. To manage woody vines, such as blackberries or plum thickets, Reggie said it’ s important to prune every so often, and Arsenal or other herbicides can be used in a backpack sprayer to take out individual trees that start growing in thickets.

If your property is heavily wooded, Reggie said trees should be thinned at a rate sufficient to let at least 60 percent of the ground to receive direct sunlight, helping promote early growth plants. Reggie said wooded blocks should be burned often, perhaps every two years to help keep fresh growth among ground plants.

Reggie says the best time to start managing your property for a healthy quail population is now. He advises that all disking be done in the winter time. After you disk this year, pay attention to what kinds of plants come back in the spring. If you see partridge peas, beggar’s lice and blackberries coming in next year when it warms up, you are off to the right start. If you start to see fescue or Bermuda, it’s time to break out the herbicides to knock them back. Then you can purchase the seed types to grow some high quality quail food.

“Planting wheat and sorghum and letting them go fallow can really also help, as can the addition of some nearby wax myrtle, which you can buy from the Georgia Forestry Commission,” Reggie said.

If you have 500 acres of land, you can disk and burn pieces of it every year on a rotational basis, so there is always quail habitat and food available, and your birds can move around the property and hopefully continue to breed and expand. If the property you own isn’t ideal turkey habitat, but there are plenty of longbeards around you, managing your property for quail can mean big benefits for you next spring.

Managing your property for small-game species can be fun, and it’s really not that expensive if you do it the right way. November and December are great months to start working toward your goals for next year. Why not make one of them to have a jam-up dove shoot, great rabbit hunting, or a place to hunt quail with your kids? Better yet, done the right way, you can do all three with a little hard work.

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