WSB: Prescribed fire may not pose risk to bobwhite quail

When done correctly, prescribed fires may not threaten bobwhite quail nest success.

Prescribed burns are often used for land management and wildlife conservation, and often take place during the spring and summer when vegetation is growing. But that’s the same time when bobwhite quail are nesting and breeding.

Researchers wondered if managers could optimize timing and frequency of fires to limit the threat to nesting northern bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus). If so, they wondered what frequency of fires would work best.

Chris Moorman, a professor in fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology at North Carolina State University, led a study published in The Wildlife Society Bulletin following the relationships between fire and bobwhite quail nests for three years in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

To conduct the study, the team trapped northern bobwhite quail and fit them with radio transmitters. The information told them where the birds were nesting, and researchers could then determine if their nests were destroyed by fires or predators, or if they were abandoned. The team also made note of the vegetation conditions at each nesting location. Finally, they compared this information with data on when the site was last burned and when.

One of the nests burned during the study. Credit: Chris Moorman

Moorman and his colleagues found that overall, 67% of bobwhite quail nests had eggs that successfully hatched in the study period. Only two nests with a total of 48 individual bobwhites were killed by prescribed fire throughout the three years.

The team also found that timing of these burns was important. Burning in Fort Bragg occurred from January to May each year. As a result, the burns didn’t interfere with the birds’ nesting period, which occurs June to August.

The researchers also looked at how the frequency of fires impacted nesting success. They saw that 52% of quail nests occurred in places where there was prescribed fire two years prior. “What we saw is that quail primarily nested in sites in the first and second year after the fire, and then much less commonly the third year after fire when the site would be scheduled to be burned,” Moorman said in a press release. “If there was interest in going to a two-year return interval with fire, then there is a greater potential that a lot of birds would be nesting in places scheduled to be burned.”

While this worked out in Fort Bragg, Moorman said it may not be the case elsewhere, where there are differences in soil productivity. When soil is more productive, vegetation recovers more quickly after fires, and quail will likely return faster. As a result, he said, in these locations prescribed fire can occur every two years.

Northern bobwhite quail are important economically and ecologically and are experiencing declines across the southeastern U.S. “The main driver is land use change, especially more intensive farming that leaves less weedy vegetation used as feeding, nesting and hiding cover by quail,” he said.

In addition, forests are becoming denser and shadier, resulting in less vegetation on the ground that the quail need. The team said that controlled burns can help reduce that density to conserve bobwhites and other species.

Header Image: When done at the optimal time, bobwhite quail are not negatively impacted by prescribed fire.
Credit: Lakeview_Images via iStock