Habitat & Conservation  |  06/08/2017

The Ditch Effect: Take a Rain Check on Roadside Disturbances

As the spring nesting season transitions into the brood-rearing phase for ring-necked pheasants, “The Habitat Organization” is reminding landowners to minimize roadside disturbances – ditch mowing, haying, spraying and ATV operation – until August 1st to protect upland birds and other wildlife. Roadsides remain an important habitat component for pheasants throughout their range, and a myriad of other wildlife also reap the benefits of undisturbed roadside habitat.

Making the Case for Roadside Wildlife

“In the lean years before the Conservation Reserve Program, roadside ditches were a major source of pheasant production,” commented Jim Wooley, just-retired director of field operations for Quail Forever and a lifelong upland game biologist with more than 40 years of experience. “We don’t seem to give roadsides the same consideration nowadays. This is a shortsighted approach to wildlife management since roadsides are a very important component in the grand scheme of habitat – always have been and always will be.”
Though pheasants and waterfowl are often seen along roadsides, few people realize the importance of roadside ditches to wildlife. Research has shown that up to one-third of all pheasants produced may come from this important habitat structure – an even more critical statistic for intensively row cropped regions where undisturbed grassland habitat can be sparse. Likewise, waterfowl nesting research has shown shorelines and roadsides contain the highest number of nests per acre.
Roadsides form an extensive network of grassy corridors and provide nesting, brood-rearing, and winter cover for pheasants and other wildlife. As urban sprawl and intensified agricultural demand have replaced pristine prairies, grassy roadsides oftentimes provide the only significant source of nesting cover for pheasants. What’s more? Roadsides also provide vital habitat for monarchs, mallards, teal, gray partridge, grassland songbirds, native pollinators, honeybees, frogs and turtles.

A successful pheasant nest hatchJust the Facts

In the Midwest’s northern reaches of the pheasant range, hens will make one to four attempts at nesting during the season, but will only hatch one brood per year. The majority of nests hatch by mid-June but up to 40 percent of re-nesting attempts hatch throughout July, stretching out the nesting season and highlighting the importance of delayed roadside disturbances. By August 1st, the reproductive season is over for most pheasants with the exception of a few late re-nesting attempts.
A nesting hen lays eggs at a rate of about one per day. Early season nests contain an average of 10 to 12 eggs, but each subsequent re-nesting attempt contains fewer eggs. The incubation period is 23 to 28 days and starts after all eggs have been laid. The hen remains very faithful to the nest, leaving only briefly to feed, and is therefore also vulnerable to mowing during this time.

Pheasant Math: Best Scenario

  • Pheasant nest initiation: May 1
  • Total of 12 eggs laid: May 13
  • Hatched eggs after maximum incubation period of 28 days: June 10
  • Wait period of three weeks for chicks to be flight ready: July 1
With an average nest success rate of 40 to 60 percent and re-nesting attempts needing time for all eggs to be laid, it’s easy to see why August 1st is the recommend date to delay disturbance of roadsides. Pheasants Forever encourages landowners to consider the benefits for wildlife when making roadside land management decisions this spring/summer.

Story by Jared Wiklund, Pheasants Forever’s public relations specialist
Photo credits: Pete Berthelsen, Pheasants Forever (main image) / Minnesota DNR (second image)