Whether it’s mowing a roadside, cutting hay or doing both at once, avoiding the Primary Nesting Season saves pheasants.
By Scott Taylor
As a rule, grass and hay mowing, and pheasant production, go together like oil and water.
Unless mowing is required financially, legally or ecologically (for example, to deal with woody plant encroachment in grasslands that cannot be burned or otherwise treated), wildlife is best served when the mower stays in the shed.
When haying must be done, proper timing can help avoid the worst outcomes. Plan cuts while keeping in mind that the peak of hatch for initial pheasant nests is variable but usually around June 10 to 15, eggs are incubated around 23 days before they hatch, chicks are most vulnerable to all threats before they are three weeks old, and hens that lose initial nests prior to hatch will usually try again.
Hens and newly hatched chicks are most likely to be killed by the mower two to three weeks before and after the peak of hatch, respectively, so operations from June through the first half of July are the most harmful. Unfortunately this is also when most commercial hay harvesting begins.
For those not needing to maximize profits, an easy rule of thumb is to avoid the Primary Nesting Season (PNS) defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for each state. This avoidance is usually mandatory for land enrolled in Conservation Reserve Program lands released for emergency haying.
Haying before or after the PNS offers different trade-offs:
1» Early cutting allows hens time to renest and grass to regrow prior to the following nesting season but ensures minimal production in the current year.
2» Late cutting reduces risks to the current year’s hens and chicks but can eliminate fall cover and early nesting habitat next year if regrowth is meager. Most choose this option for economic and logistical reasons, cutting shortly after the PNS ends.
The use of flushing bars (devices mounted ahead of the mower) and mowing from the middle of a field outward (rather than starting around the perimeter and ending in the middle) also have their proponents, but neither can overcome the effects of a poorly timed cut.
As for roadsides, if human safety on the road is not an issue, why use the gas and time to mow at all before or anywhere near the PNS? A lot of pheasants can be produced in roadside habitat.
Scott Taylor is National Wild Pheasant Conservation Plan Coordinator.