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Nitpicking Habitat Management - Stop the "Dead Zone"

Published on: Jun. 16, 2009

I’m starting to think that some landowners might be genetically programmed to mow. Most landowners start recreational mowing in June or July during the peak of the bobwhite and pheasant nesting season. In a good conservation effort, landowners will often mow around a quail or turkey nest. Rarely do the birds return. Look at a recently mowed field and there are not many places for a covey to hide. It’s pretty easy to see why mowing entire fields is tough on wildlife, especially bobwhites. However, many people don’t realize that mowing field edges – creating a “dead zone” – is also bad for quail.

Mowing field edges creates a “dead zone” for quail. The “dead zone” destroys productive quail habitat, can kill quail, is waste of money, and promotes the growth of fescue and brome. This landowner should consider eliminating mowing, mowing a narrower path or moving the path out into the field. This field edge should be sprayed with glyphosate to eliminate tall fescue and then edge feathered. The “dead zone” often develops around the edges of fields next to good woody cover, fence rows or timber. I’ve even seen “dead zones” around food plots. Depending on the size of the mower and enthusiasm of the landowner, the “dead zone” is typically 20 to 60 feet wide. Usually the grass is mowed so short I can only imagine the amount of rocks and dirt kicked up by the mower.

The “dead zone” is bad news for quail. A well manicured “dead zone” can kill or deter quail any time of the year. During the spring and summer, mowing field edges can kill a devoted quail on the nest or even a fleeing brood of young birds. During the fall and winter, the mowed area will make quail vulnerable to predators as the covey moves back and forth from covey headquarters to either feeding or roosting sites. Conditions can be exaggerated during periods of ice and snow since cover is often degraded during these critical times. To make matters worse, the constant mowing of the “dead zone” will promote the growth of tall fescue and smooth brome which will eventually contaminate the adjacent woody cover and grass field, making your best quail habitat worthless. If that isn’t enough remember that quail rarely venture more than 70 feet from woody cover so mowing a “dead zone” destroys some of the most productive space for bobwhites.

Mowing field edges destroys the places quail like best.

I understand why people might want to mow field edges. Unfortunately for quail, people just like to mow. Often it is done for appearance or hunting access. Some landowners like mowed paths to walk along while hunting. A firebreak that is disked every two or three years provides just as easy walking. Others think summer mowing will help control woody sprouts. Actually, summer mowing only cuts off the top of the sprout, leaving sharp spikes for your ATV and truck tires. In a year or two the sprouts will be right back. If you are interested in seeing more quail consider these facts before starting up the mower.

Many people believe it is alright to mow in late July because quail are done nesting for the year. Research throughout the Midwest has shown that quail will attempt to nest well into September! Many of birds I harvested the past two quail seasons came from hatches in August and early September. Another way to think about recreational mowing during the summer nesting season (May to September) is you might mow over a quail nest or brood that you didn’t see. Now you will never see them come November.

Some landowners will say they are only making one or two passes around the edges of the fields--creating a “dead zone.” That can’t hurt, or can it? A research project in southern Iowa found that bobwhites preferred to brood close to woody cover like edge feathering and shrub thickets, which are usually along the edge of the field. Mowing field edges likely destroys some of your best brooding cover for bobwhites. Think twice before starting up the mower next summer.

I polled a few biologists on ways landowners could better manage their field edges for bobwhites with or without mowing. They all agreed it would be best not to mow, but they had some good ideas for landowners to consider:

1.Don’t mow field edges. Especially if you are interested in bobwhites.

2.Only mow field edges for fire line installation and only around those fields you plan to burn in the coming year. There’s no need to mow or disk fire lines or field edges if you don’t plan to burn the site this year. If possible, delay mowing fire lines until October, unless you plan a summer burn.

3.Instead of mowing, consider disking or spraying field edges every three to four years. The disked or sprayed area will grow up in ragweed, foxtail and annual lespedeza--quail food. The disked or sprayed area will provide easy walking.

4.Instead of mowing the “dead zone,” this landowner only disks around field edges when a prescribed burn is planned. Annual lespedeza and annual ragweed (grey vegetation in the picture below) provide ideal food and protective cover for coveys moving back and forth from covey headquarters to feeding and roosting sites. Notice the low-growing woody cover to the left. The field edge was edge feathered in 2005. If you must mow paths, move the path at least 70 feet out into the field to provide high quality nesting and brooding next to woody cover. Burn, disk or spray the area in between the woody cover and mowed path every two to three years. Remember, quail rarely venture more than 70 feet from woody cover during the winter.

5.If possible, consider moving your field road to the center of the field. Doing so will divide the field in half for alternating burn units. If possible, consider burning through woody draws to keep trees in check and to avoid having to edge feather five to seven years later.

6.Instead of mowing, create a long, linear food plot around the edge of the field for easy travel for you and a dependable food source and brooding cover for quail.

7.If you must mow, try to delay any mowing until October after the nesting season. Mow trails no shorter than 1 foot tall to provide adequate overhead cover for quail during the winter. There’s no need for a 30-foot-wide path if you only need a 10-foot path to drive along!

8.If you must mow, only mow the path once. The path doesn’t need to look like a golf course. Unless of course you will eventually use it for a firebreak.

The next time you start up the mower, think twice before you create a “dead zone” in your quail paradise. Mowing field edges will likely destroy some of your best quail habitat and create future management problems. At all cost avoid the urge to mow whole fields or any mowing during the nesting season. Remember, a considerable amount of quail nesting still occurs in August and September when most people believe it is alright to start mowing. Think twice before you create a “dead zone.”

Habitat is the Key!

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