Sizzlin' Summer

August 2015

Slideshow August 18, 2015

How To Know When to Mow

Mowing seems like a simple act—gas up the tractor and go! But for savvy citizen scientists, questions about timing, frequency, and possible impact on other species (vertebrate and invertebrate alike) start to cut through the air like the swirling steel blades. We know that grassland habitats are important for the birds we love to watch throughout the summer. Bluebirds and swallows in particular prefer the view from their nest box or tree cavity to be an open, grassy expanse complete with wildflowers and insects. And in order to maintain this picturesque “early-successional” habitat for our avian friends, mowing becomes a necessity. [Prescribed fires can have the same effect, but for most landowners, mowing is the most realistic option.] But what about the other critters that also call this home? To become better habitat stewards, we need to take a closer look at this complex web of life.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty details of a mowing schedule, let’s first take a peek at some grassland inhabitants and visitors. Click through the slideshow below to meet some familiar and unfamiliar meadow-goers.

Grassland Gallery

  • The Bobolink relies on grasslands for nesting and foraging for insects. Photo by Corey Hayes.

    The Bobolink relies on grasslands for nesting and foraging for insects. Photo by Corey Hayes.

  • A Short-eared Owl and Northern Harrier vie for a Meadow Vole. Both use grasslands for hunting. Photo by Gregory Lis.

    A Short-eared Owl and Northern Harrier vie for a Meadow Vole. Both use grasslands for hunting. Photo by Gregory Lis.

  • Meadowlarks prefer grasslands for hunting insects, eating seeds, and nesting on the ground. Western Meadowlark photo by Stephen Ramirez.

    Meadowlarks prefer grasslands for hunting insects, eating seeds, and nesting on the ground. Western Meadowlark photo by Stephen Ramirez.

  • Meadow Voles find food and shelter in grasslands. They also serve as prey for many predators. Photo by  Wes Aslin.

    Meadow Voles find food and shelter in grasslands. They also serve as prey for many predators. Photo by Wes Aslin.

  • Red foxes, coyotes, bobcats and other predators use grasslands for hunting. Photo by Gregory Smith.

    Red foxes, coyotes, bobcats and other predators use grasslands for hunting. Photo by Gregory Smith.

  • Monarch and other pollinators utilize grassland plants for a food source and as a place to lay their eggs.  Photo by Chelsea Benson.

    Monarch and other pollinators utilize grassland plants for a food source and as a place to lay their eggs. Photo by Chelsea Benson.

  • Wasp on milkweed by Derek Ramsey.

    Wasp on milkweed by Derek Ramsey.

Two Good Reasons To Delay Mowing

For most of these inhabitants and visitors, a defined mowing schedule is not critical. However, there are two groups of inhabitants that are extremely sensitive to a well-timed mow: (1) ground-nesting birds and (2) monarch butterflies. For most of the United States, it is safe to mow by early or mid-August, but check out the specific dates of the nesting season in your region here. By late summer, most birds will have completed their breeding cycle and second broods will have fledged.

Monarchs And Milkweed

When taking into consideration monarch butterflies and their life cycle, the date for mowing becomes a bit trickier. In recent years, monarch populations have suffered a precipitous decline [1]. One hypothesis is that milkweed (Asclepias spp.) availability has been reduced due to industrialized agriculture. Monarch butterflies require milkweed for egg-laying and larval development, and with fewer milkweed plants, the remaining populations struggle to find suitable breeding habitat [2].

Monarchs spend several months breeding in milkweed habitat. In northern latitudes, breeding tends to run from June-August with migratory departure starting around mid-August. By the first frost, most monarchs have left their breeding grounds. In southern latitudes, departure for overwintering sites might not occur until September or October. To avoid cutting milkweed that has developing eggs or caterpillars, or eliminating it as a food source during migration, it is best to wait to mow in northern ranges until after the first frost or after late October/early November, whichever comes first. In southern parts of the range, it is recommended to wait until late December or early January, well past when monarchs have arrived at their wintering grounds and no longer need the milkweed as a food source.

Visit the University of Kansas’ Monarch Watch website to see when peak migration occurs in your area.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed by AndrewC.

These dates seem pretty clear cut; however, a recent research study conducted in New York’s Hudson Valley adds an interesting twist [3]. The research team oversaw timed mows in early and late July and in mid-August to determine if milkweed regeneration would provide a more continuously suitable habitat for monarch eggs and caterpillars than an un-mowed control area. The swaths that were mowed in early and late July significantly extended the monarch breeding season and increased their overall reproduction. Mowing that occurred in mid-August had no impact on the monarch population.

While we would discourage mowing before August 1 out of caution for ground-nesting birds, a mow at the start of August, for those living in northern latitudes similar to upstate New York, might be something to consider. There will be some loss of monarchs in their juvenile stages, but as recent research points out, monarchs prefer the milkweed regrowth for laying eggs, and any loss is more than replaced in an extended breeding season and in egg density on the regenerated plants [3]. Additional research with different milkweed varieties and in different regions is necessary, but the implications are significant for the struggling monarch butterflies.

With all these variables in mind, when will you mow this season?

More Resources: Connect with our YardMap project to learn more about managing habitat for birds and other wildlife, and discover your local nesting birds with NestWatch’s Guide to Common Nesting Birds.


References
1. Davis A.K., Dyer L.A. 2015. Long-term trends in eastern North American monarch butterflies: A collection of studies focusing on spring, summer, and fall dynamics. Ann. Entomol. Soc. Am. 1-3.
2. Pleasants J. M., Oberhauser K. S. 2012. Milkweed loss in agricultural fields because of herbicide use: Effect on the monarch butterfly population. Insect Conserv. Divers. 6: 135–144.
3. Fischer S.J., Williams, E.H., Brower, L.P., and P.A. Palmiotto. 2015. Enhancing Monarch butterfly reproduction by mowing fields of common milkweed. Am. Midle. Nat. 173: 229-240.

This article contains content from:

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How To Know When to Mow

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7 Comments

  1. Lisa D'Andrea says:

    I have reduced my lawn considerably over the years and have replaced it with native vegetation. I have made sure I have plenty of milkweed- swamp, common, and butterflyweed. I’m currently trying to secure blunt-leaved milkweed seeds but many of the blunt-leaved plants in my town are on roadsides and tend to get mowed before or after flowering. I don’t mow my native area but I actively collect seed and cut and trim plants as the season progresses. Last year I saw maybe one or two monarchs. this year I have seen more flying in my yard. I have a swamp milkweed that hosted 5 monarch caterpillars. another one hosted one.

    • Barb says:

      What State do you live in? We live in Western PA, and have meadows that are mowed generally once a year, after September. I haven’t seen any Monarchs. I am hopeful.

  2. Joan Spiegel says:

    I live in Central Vermont (Washington County). I have about four acres that I don’t mow because of a profusion of wildflowers including common milkweed. I have only seen one monarch on my property. As I do every year, I am having this land brush hogged next week (beginning of October). Is that the best thing to do for the monarchs (including timing)?

  3. Jon Crouch says:

    Birds can also benefit from lawns that have tall grass. Now I know that depending on where you live, you may have to keep your grass short. But if you can let even an area of your yard “go wild” it will benefit the birds, and even make free grass seed!

  4. Lucy says:

    Why not mow every other year or every third year? Then you leave intact the habitat for birds, insects, mammals,reptiles and amphibians that still find food and shelter beyond the breeding season and save energy?

  5. ankush says:

    wow !! amazing. it’s really wonderful information. i really love this blog.

  6. What a nice photo!! Birds in flower looking natural!! Who is the photographer for this photo.Tell him thanks.

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