Iowa has more than 1.6 million acres of road right-of-ways and when properly managed these roadsides provide important nesting, roosting, and escape habitat for pheasants, partridge, quail, ducks, rabbits, and songbirds.
Unfortunately, indiscriminate mowing and ill-timed burning destroys many nests and young each year. However, by following a few simple guidelines, roadsides can be very beneficial to upland wildlife.
Nesting for most of Iowa’s upland wildlife begins in late April and early May and runs through late summer.
“Many of these species begin nesting before spring green-up," said Todd Bogenschutz, wildlife research biologist with the Department of Natural Resources. “Most nests are placed in the old dead vegetation that remains from the previous year. Burning in mid-April through June destroys nests and eggs, while mowing in June and July kills hens and chicks.
“Burning can be very beneficial to wildlife if done at the right time and in the right way," said Bogenschutz.
He offers the following suggestions to improve roadsides for upland wildlife:
Burn between March 1 and April 15. Burning at this time is before most nesting has begun and encourages native grasses and discourages exotic species and weeds. Native plants provide better habitat for wildlife and prevent the invasion of noxious weeds because of their deep root systems.
Conduct rotational burns. Rotational burning is the practice of burning separate portions of the road ditch in different years. This rejuvenates the grasses in the burned segment, while the unburned segment provides undisturbed nesting and escape habitat for wildlife. A popular scenario is to burn one side of the ditch one year and the other side the next year. Safety precautions should be followed when burning roadsides: contact neighbors, utility companies and local fire department before burning and be careful of roadside utility poles, telephone junction boxes and pipelines.
Avoid burning roadsides in November and December. Winter burns eliminate habitat for wildlife and leave ditches exposed to erosion.
Avoid mowing road ditches between April 15 and Aug. 1, to protect nests and young. If weeds are a problem, use spot mowing or spraying to control the problem. Mowing along the shoulder usually does not harm nesting wildlife as most nests are placed in the ditch bottom or on the back slope.
Some state and county agencies provide information for implementing roadside management practices. Contact your local county conservation board to find out more about roadside vegetation management programs in your area. If your county does not have a roadside program, ask them to start one, or contact your local wildlife biologist for more information.