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Late Winter is Best Time to Manage Roadsides

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 many different songbirds.

Unfortunately, ill-timed burning and indiscriminate mowing destroys many nests and young each year.  

Most nests are placed in late April and early May using the old dead vegetation that remains from the previous year.  Burning from 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 Todd Bogenschutz, wildlife research biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. 

Bogenschutz offered some suggestions to improve roadsides for upland wildlife:

  • Burn between March 1 and April 15, which 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.  Some safety precautions should be followed when burning roadsides: contact neighbors, utility company, and the fire department before burning. Be careful of roadside utility poles, telephone junction boxes and pipelines.
  • Avoid burning of 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 July 15 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. 

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