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Roadside ditches are important habitat for wildlife
Outdoors with Babe Winkelman
Babe Winkelman
The Pilot-Independent
Last Updated: Wednesday, June 01st, 2005 09:12:12 AM

Let's be honest, when most of us think of wildlife habitat, road ditches don't necessarily come to mind. After all, they're just nature's trash collectors, right? Not so fast, my friends.

No, these linear, grassy strips are more valuable to wildlife, particularly ground-nesting birds, than you may have ever imagined.
Roadside ditches form an extensive patchwork of grassy corridors that provide important nesting, brood-rearing and winter cover for pheasants and many other wildlife species.
In fact, as several regions of the United States succumb to urban sprawl and intensive agriculture, these grassy roadside areas are sometimes the only true habitat sanctuaries where critters can make a home and raise their young.
That's why it's important that we heed the long-standing advice of wildlife officials and manage road ditches in a way that benefits nature's critters, be they pheasants, ducks, quail, songbirds, rabbits and other small mammals.
"This is an important topic to discuss, because we're in the nesting season for pheasants and many other bird species," said Jim Wooley, senior wildlife biologist for Pheasants Forever (PF), a national conservation organization. "Left undisturbed, road ditches are extremely valuable to wildlife."
According to PF, research in some areas has demonstrated that up to one-half of all pheasants produced may come from roadside ditches. That number can increase dramatically in areas without land set aside by the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
"Before we had CRP, roadside ditches were a major source of pheasant production," said Wooley. "That assumes, however, that these ditches were not mowed. Whenever possible, roadside mowing should be eliminated or at least delayed until after the nesting season. That's an important point to remember."
Indeed, grassland habitats left standing over the winter are extremely attractive to nesting birds come spring. Road ditches are no different. As a general rule of thumb, wildlife officials say that ditch mowing should be delayed until Aug. 1, when the crucial period for nesting and brood-rearing has passed.
According to Wooley, Pheasants Forever has supported policy in many states that delays or eliminates the mowing of road ditches as a means by which to preserve upland habitat. Still, it can be a hard sell, even though the consequences of mowing too early can be lethal.
In a long-term study of nesting pheasants conducted by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, 72 percent of all hens killed or injured on the nest were hit between June 10 and July 1. That's an astonishingly high number, and one that could be eliminated by following Pheasant Forever's advice.
One of the big problems with roadside ditches is that they are managed by different units of government (states, counties, townships, etc.).
Without a uniform policy set by state officials or lawmakers, many ditches get mowed even when they're not supposed to, say wildlife officials. In fact, why are we mowing road ditches at all, particularly those that are considered public property? All grassland must be managed periodically to bolster productivity, but not every year.
Let's look at this issue in another way. Eliminating mowing of road ditches will save time, fuel and money at a time when gasoline and diesel fuel costs are at or near record highs. What's more, limiting mowing until after Aug. 1 may eliminate the spread of unwanted weeds, say wildlife officials. Grasses and legumes found in many rural landscapes typically grow most rapidly in spring and fall. By not mowing, the early growth of grasses can limit the growth of undesirable weed species.
The good news is that more and more states are administering so-called Roadsides for Wildlife programs, which delay or eliminate roadside mowing and sometimes replace existing grass with native species (big blue stem, etc.), whose stands are more robust and in general more productive for wildlife.
Lloyd Jones, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says road ditches are attractive to wildlife, particularly some prairie duck species, because they provide "edge," habitat. Edge habitat is where two habitats (grassland and crop fields, for example) meet. Put another way, edges are complex habitats that join two distinct landscapes — one that provides food, one that provides cover.
"Edge habitat provides a variety of needs for critters, especially bird species," said Jones.
Wildlife officials also suggest that riders of all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes, among other modes of travel, steer clear of roadside ditches until Aug. 1. Bottom line: the fewer disturbances, the better (for wildlife). Keep in mind, too, some states prohibit ATV travel in roadside ditches, and offenders are subject to monetary fines.
As the spring nesting season cranks up, remember the importance of roadside ditches and what they mean to wildlife. They may collect trash on occasion, but they are also homes for countless wild critters.
Babe Winkelman is a nationally known outdoorsman who has been teaching people to fish and hunt for 25 years. Watch his award-winning "Good Fishing" television show on WGN-TV, Fox Sports Net, The Men's Channel, Great American Country Network and The Sportsman's Channel. Visit for air times.

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