I made a trip recently to one of my favorite places to photograph birds. I've seen everything there from goldfinches to indigo buntings to red-winged blackbirds to meadowlarks. I have spotted Eastern kingbirds, a great crested flycatcher and a red-headed woodpecker there.
As I approached on a nearly empty country road, my jaw dropped. Everything was different. The entire area had been mowed. The field and the ditches were shaved clean. The only tall grass grew directly in the fence row.
The character of the land had changed, and so had its inhabitants. Gone were all but one red-winged blackbird. I can only speculate about the fate of any young birds learning to hunt and survive in this field. Replacing the former inhabitants were dozens of grackles, now feasting in the short grass. One habitat was replaced by another, and so the wildlife changed as well.
First let me state that not all mowing is bad. We mow grass around our homes to keep ticks and rodents away. My dogs would be absolutely covered with ticks if my backyard was exclusively tall grass. Some areas which do not contain crops, however, are mowed simply because we have become accustomed to a "neat" appearance.
Mowing an apron strip along a roadway can prevent wildlife from emerging directly onto the road. Also, farmers need to see where they are going when they
move down the highway with over sized equipment. Hazards that may puncture an expensive tire would be visible. Other than that, there appears to be no good reason to mow ditches except for appearance.
A mowed strip along the shoulder will not harm nesting wildlife, since most nests occur in the ditch bottom or back slope. Noxious weeds can be spot treated with herbicide. Avoid "blanket spraying." If possible, leave roadsides undisturbed year around.
A published report in the Decatur Herald and Review stated that delayed mowing of roadsides and other grassy areas until after the nesting season is the single most important thing farmers and other road maintenance personnel can do to increase grassland wildlife. By delaying mowing until after August 1, many species of game and non-game grassland birds and mammals can nest and raise young successfully. Mowing not only destroys nests and young, but a significant number of nesting adult females as well.
Areas that need to be mowed for visibility or safety reasons should be mowed early in the spring and be kept mowed.
Due to central Illinois' flat terrain, most of the land is tillable. This means that grassy roadsides provide a significant portion of nesting habitat for grassland wildlife.
Chris Young/IRC Board of Directors
sources: Decatur Herald and Review, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.