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Fergus Falls, Minnesota Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Roadside mowing delay could save thousands of birds in state

By Tom Conroy

She scooted across the road far enough ahead that I had plenty of time to brake and miss her. But when her chick suddenly popped out, chasing after the hen, and disappeared in front of my truck, I braced myself for the sickening thump I expected to feel.

Somehow, the chick avoided my tires and with a sense of relief I caught a glimpse of it out of the corner of my eye as it dashed into the grass behind the hen. For now, both were safe. But where were the rest of this pheasant's clutch?

A hen pheasant will typically lay about a dozen eggs in a nest. About half of those chicks will survive the summer. Yet this hen had only one chick with her in early July. The reason why seemed apparent as I continued on down the road.

It is mowing time across the countryside. That means critters that nest in roadside ditches are at risk. Although they make up only a small fraction of the land area, roadsides are highly productive nesting sites for more than 40 species of birds and animals that utilize these areas continuously from spring to late summer. When these roadside ditches are mowed before Aug. 1, they become literal death traps.

Who knows why the hen and her chick crossed the road, where they did, on the day I came along. The ditch on either side was mowed to stubble. And not just for short stretches. For more than 10 miles there were only a few short segments that had not been mowed. In fact, wherever grass grew outside of the ditch that, too, had been mowed.

Passing by at 55 miles per hour, it was impossible to see any dead birds or destroyed nests in the ditch. But they were most certainly there. Studies have found that motorists passing by on roads that have un-mowed roadsides are passing a bird nest of one kind or another every four to eight seconds. Ducks, pheasants, mourning doves, meadowlark, killdeer, and gray partridge are among the species that nest in ditches.

Conservatively, hundreds of thousands of birds could be added to the population annually if all the roadsides in the Minnesota agricultural zone were left undisturbed during the summer nesting season. That, of course, is not going to happen any time soon. Ditch hay has always been coveted as a source of animal food and probably always will. While that is bad news for ground-nesting wildlife, the impacts can be lessened.

Delaying roadside mowing until after Aug. 1 is the most important step that can be taken to avoid destroying birds and nests. Each species of wildlife has its own nesting habits, including when and how many times they rear young each year. By delaying roadside mowing until after August 1, nests for most species can successfully hatch.

Over the years most of the wildlife habitat that once existed in southern and western Minnesota has been converted into housing developments, golf courses, roads, cropland and other uses unfriendly to wildlife. With an approximately 500,000 acres in Minnesota's pheasant range, roadsides have the potential to help offset some of that loss. In some areas, in fact, roadsides provide the only nesting cover available.

If it is not feasible to completely delay mowing until after Aug. 1, would it not be possible to leave at least certain stretches un-mowed? Most nests occur along the ditch bottom or back slope -- could mowing those areas be postponed until after Aug. 1?

In some cases, ditch mowing is done not for the hay but for the sake of appearances. There are some who live in the country but prefer a suburban look to their property. They aree willing to hop on a mower and spend hours driving up and down a ditch to achieve that manicured look. Personally I would rather take that time to sit on the porch, sip a cold drink and watch and listen to the birds.

In a small town near where the hen and her chick crossed the road there is a convenience store popular with the locals. On a bulletin board in the store is a sign put up by members of local conservation clubs. The sign describes the benefits of leaving roadsides undisturbed until Aug. 1 and asks area landowners to consider doing so.

Have to at least give 'em an 'A' for effort.

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