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Conservation Corner

What makes good quail habitat?

Tue, January 03, 2012

Safe nesting cover for quail is sparse, not dense grass

You might think the heavier the grass cover for quail to nest, the better they could hide from predators.  But that’s not the case.  Bobwhite nests are usually found in sparse vegetation, near the edge of a patch of grass.  Their small size gives quail limited mobility, so they avoid heavy matted vegetation like bromegrass, timothy and native warm season grasses like switchgrass.

You’re more likely to find quail nests in shorter native grasses with forbs, moderately grazed pastures, idle land, weedy food plots and brushy fence rows and hedgerows. They’ve been known to nest in no-till fields. Quail may need only one clump of grass every 30 feet to nest, with sparse vegetation in between.

The grass clump forms an overhead canopy to hide the nest, incubating bird and eggs. Quail make nests on the ground in slight depressions, from leaves and stems of grasses and forbs, or of pine needles. They nest from April through September; the females may lay eggs in a nest and leave the incubation to the male, and start another nest. This “double clutching” is one reason for the long nesting season for quail.

Establishing nesting cover.

If you already have a mixture of erect grasses, forbs and scattered shrubs or brambles on idle land, you have the habitat quail look for in nesting. Old fields like this will be used by quail for nesting as long as the planting stays diverse and the ground surface is not covered with a densely matted grass.

If the existing plant mixture is good, but too dense, consider lightly discing some of the area or burning it. The disturbance will thin the vegetation and promote new plant growth that attracts insects. This should be done early or late in the year, before or after nesting.

Another option is to plant a mixture of lightly-seeded legumes and bunch grasses. Within a year or two, they should be suitable for nesting, and they will become more attractive as native forbs and woody plants invade.

The new nesting cover should be planted near woody cover if possible, but quail will travel a quarter of a mile to get to good nesting cover.

For more information, visit the NRCS Wildlife Habitat Management Institute’s website at or the NRCS home web site at


WHIP Helps Rare Natural Area

Wed, December 14, 2011

Goats, Turtles and WHIP Help Rare Natural Area

In northern Illinois, an 80-acre piece of remnant land is being carefully managed to re-establish an oasis for wildlife and native plants. This unique area, called the Piscasaw Fen, will once again become a place where native species can flourish with the help from some unusual partners.  The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) with the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) and the Boone County Conservation District (BCCD) with their goats. This includes a surprising discovery of a state endangered species - the Blanding’s turtle.

The land is considered remnant, which means “it has never been plowed,” said Ellen Starr, biologist for NRCS. “These types of areas are a rare find. They offer much in native plants and lend themselves to quality habitats for wildlife once restored.” Savannas are the rarest type of habitat found in Illinois, even more rare than wetlands. This site is an excellent example of a historic landscape: a savanna/wetland complex.

The BCCD purchases land in Boone County when it becomes available and restores it back to its native state. NRCS District Conservationist Lewis Nichols said “this was one site where we started to work with the previous owner and continued with BCCD after they acquired the property. Once acquired, we just followed up with BCCD and enrolled them in WHIP.”

Restoration Activities

The acreage includes 40 acres of savanna and 40 acres of wetlands which lies along the Piscasaw Creek. A native northern Illinois savanna would consist of white oak, bur oak and shagbark hickory with a prairie understory. To open the canopy for those species to reproduce, undesirable and invasive trees and shrubs such as elms, cherry, bush honeysuckle and buckthorn must be removed.

Through the incredible labor of only two BCCD employees and some seasonal help, the area will gradually revert back to a native savanna with plants such as pointed tick trefoil, a staple for the savanna. Water seeps out from the savanna’s hillside to feed the adjacent wetland. This unique type of wetland is called a Fen.

A Fen is an alkaline (high pH) wetland typically located at the base of a hill and is composed of a unique community of plants that thrive in high pH conditions. Plans for restoring the wet prairie include removal of trees like box elder and sugar maple along with some of the red-osier dogwood. “We want to keep the silky dogwood, also known as blue-fruited dogwood,” said Joshua Sage, BCCD Restoration Project Manager. “They are a good food source for birds.”

A portion of the fen is hayland consisting of non-native grasses; predominately timothy and brome. It is hayed every year after nesting season for ground-nesting birds like the bobolink and grasshopper sparrow. This area is left as pasture to accommodate their preferred habitat.

An old Piscasaw oxbow, a U-shaped body of water formed from a meander in the Piscasaw Creek, runs through portions of the fen providing deeper water habitat for many wetland-dependant species.

Blanding’s Discovery

In 2010, the Illinois State Endangered Blanding’s turtle was discovered in the area. Aarron Minson, BCCD Restoration Technician, outfitted four turtles with transmitters and tracks their movements daily. The transmitters emit a signal that is picked up by an antennae/receiver. “We can track them to determine habitat availability and usage in their range and modify our restoration efforts accordingly,” said Minson. “We know they have been nesting here. The fact we have so many varying ages of turtles is good news.”

WHIP Restoration Plan

The eight-year WHIP contract helps Sage and Minson remove unwanted brush and control invasive species. The first step in the process is removing the dense invasive shrubs by hand. Then goats are brought in and enclosed with a solar powered electric fence where they eat the remaining invasive species such as multiflora rose, thistle, and garlic mustard.

“It takes about two to three full growing seasons,” said Sage, “for the goats to remove most of the unwanted vegetation.” Afterwards, Sage and Minson, along with a few volunteers, come in with hand or mechanical brush removal techniques during the winter to finish the clearing. Goats prefer the thorny multiflora rose thistles – “go figure!” says Starr.

Goats are enclosed in specific areas to eat invasive species.

The WHIP contract includes a prescribed burn which is scheduled in 2014, followed by seeding of native plants such as bristly aster, sweet indian plantain, fen thistle, Michigan lily and other plants in areas as needed. “It is always nice to come out and see a native plant come up that wasn’t there before,” said Minson. “Especially one we didn’t plant.”

Future Projects

Another remnant savanna that is currently pastureland near the Piscasaw Fen is in a Land Trust, but the Boone County Conservation District will eventually acquire the land. “That land is a Plug & Play savanna with a little fire to help,” said Sage. “That will be the next stop for the goats.”

The BCCD looks forward to using conservation and best management practices within the watershed of the Piscasaw Creek to help provide needed habitat for many species including the State Listed Blanding’s turtle whose largest threat is habitat fragmentation. “WHIP really just landed in our lap. Our working relationship with NRCS has been outstanding,” Sage continued.

“The BCCD is doing an excellent job on restoring the remnant savanna and wetland,” said Starr. This past summer Starr organized a field day at Piscasaw Fen with BCCD’s assistance for NRCS and SWCD field office personnel so they have a better understanding of what all is involved with restoring these rare habitats. “They got to see firsthand the beginning stages of the restoration process,” she continued. “In subsequent years we will revisit the site as the restoration progresses for more training opportunities.”

For more information on the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program and other NRCS programs and assistance, visit your local USDA Service Center or go to


NRCS - Helping People Help the Land

An Equal Opportunity Provider and Employer



USDA Announces Conservation Initiatives

Tue, December 13, 2011

USDA Announces Ranking Dates for Four Major Conservation Initiatives

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the ranking dates for the On-Farm Energy, Organic, Seasonal High Tunnel and Air Quality conservation initiatives.

All four initiatives offer technical and financial assistance through the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

“Producers tell us they want to apply for these initiatives, but many want more time to make sure they choose the one that’s right for their operation,” Vilsack said. “Moving to multiple ranking dates for each initiative is going to make it easier for more producers to apply and help them get started with implementing the practices they need to benefit the natural resources on their operations.”

NRCS accepts applications for financial assistance on a continuous basis throughout the year. There will be three ranking periods for the Organic, On-Farm Energy and Seasonal High Tunnel initiatives, all ending on February 3, March 30 and June 1, 2012. Ranking periods for the Air Quality Initiative end February 3 and March 30, 2012. At the end of a ranking period, NRCS ranks all submitted proposals for funding consideration. NRCS will notify all applicants of the results of the rankings and begin developing contracts with selected applicants. 

The On-Farm Energy, Organic and Seasonal High Tunnel initiatives are available in all 50 states, the Caribbean Area and the Pacific Basin. The Air Quality Initiative is available in Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Montana, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas. Air Quality funding is limited to counties within these nine States that have serious air quality resource concerns related to non-attainment for Ozone and Particulate Matter.

Initiative Overviews

On-Farm Energy Initiative:  NRCS and producers develop Agricultural Energy Management Plans (AgEMP) or farm energy audits that assess energy consumption on an operation. NRCS then uses audit data to develop energy conservation recommendations. Each AgEMP has a landscape component that assesses equipment and farming processes and a farm headquarters component that assesses power usage and efficiencies in livestock buildings, grain handling operations, and similar facilities to support the farm operation.

Organic Initiative:  NRCS helps certified organic growers and producers working to achieve organic certification install conservation practices for organic production. New for fiscal year 2012, applicants will be evaluated continuously during the ranking periods. Applications meeting or exceeding a threshold score may be approved for an EQIP contract before the end of the ranking period. Applications rating below the threshold score will be deferred to the next period. A new threshold score will be established at the beginning of each ranking period. This new scoring process allows organic producers to implement conservation practices in a timelier manner.

Seasonal High Tunnel Pilot Initiative:  NRCS helps producers plan and implement high tunnels, steel-framed, polyethylene-covered structures that extend growing seasons in an environmentally safe manner. High tunnel benefits include better plant and soil quality, fewer nutrients and pesticides in the environment, and better air quality due to fewer vehicles being needed to transport crops. More than 4,000 high tunnels have been planned and implemented nationwide through this initiative over the past two years.

Air Quality Initiative:  NRCS helps producers address air quality concerns on their operations.  Assistance includes establishing cover crops, planting windbreaks, implementing nutrient management practices and applying other conservation measures that mitigate and prevent air quality problems.

Conservation practices installed through this initiative reduce airborne particulate matter and greenhouse gases and conserve energy. Visit the NRCS National Web site for more information on how to apply for these initiatives and connect with an NRCS office near you.


USDA is an equal opportunity provider, employer and lender. To file a complaint of discrimination, write: USDA, Director, Office of Civil Rights, 1400 Independence Ave., S.W., Washington, D.C. 20250-9410 or call (800) 795-3272 (voice) or (202) 720-6382 (TDD).