Scott Rall: Nesting birds do better with fire

SCOTT RALL The Globe outdoors columnist This has been one heck of a spring. I did my last prescribed fire on the last day allowed, May 15. When burning is done as part of mid-contract management on CRP acres, they want it completed before the hea...


The Globe outdoors columnist

This has been one heck of a spring. I did my last prescribed fire on the last day allowed, May 15.

When burning is done as part of mid-contract management on CRP acres, they want it completed before the heart of the nesting season. I will explain why the burning of the grasses is done in the spring and not in the fall.

I hear it all the time -- folks will outright chastise me for burning in the spring when it will most likely burn up some pheasant and duck nests.  This is true. It does do that. But the old saying, “short-term pain for long-term gain” is the reason we do this.


Native warm season grasses are burned about once every five years to stimulate their growth. Before human settlement, lightning would start fires that I imagine could burn across an entire region before they would be extinguished by rain. Native grasses thrived in this environment.

Today we have an invasive grass called smooth broghm. This is a cool season grass that is the first grass to green up each spring. Road ditches are full of the grass. Because native grasses don’t start growing much until mid-June, the early starting cool season broghm can get a big head start on it. Without burning, smooth broghm will out-compete native warm season grasses, and after 10 years or so you can’t even tell the native grasses once existed.

Burning in the spring allows the grass to start greening up and then the fire burns it off, which sets the plants back a little.  It by no means kills them. With all of the cover gone and the ground burnt black, the ground heats up fast with the help of the sun.  That stimulates those warm season grasses that need a higher soil temperate to get going. There is now no sunlight or moisture competition and the native grasses do their thing.

Burning extends the growing season of native grasses by more than a month in most cases. The head start and the fact that the undesirable grasses are set back allows the results to be phenomenal.

I have seen native grass that was two feet tall come back to a height of 7-8 feet tall by September of the same year. Most folks can’t believe the difference this makes.

It has to be repeated over few years because cool season smooth broghm never gives up. Also, when we burn, we never burn the entire tract at the same time.

You normally burn about 25 percent of the property each year. That allows the hens whose nests were destroyed the opportunity to nest again in the remaining habitat. The end result is higher quality habitat capable of reproducing and holding much higher wildlife populations. As I said, short-term pain for long-term gain.

So, what would happen if you burned grasses in the fall? Well, the cover would be gone and would eliminate winter cover for non-migratory birds like pheasants. In the spring, the undesirable cool season grasses would get even better sunlight and they, in turn, would be jump-started.  That is the actual opposite of what you want to happen.


Losing a few nests and requiring the pheasant hen to start over again is the lesser of the two evils.

We sure had a hard time getting our burning completed.  It rained almost every day and it was inches, not tenths of an inch, when it did. The outcome of the completed burns was not as good as I would have liked.  If there was a low spot it was filled with standing water and the fire just had to burn around the edges. There were lots of these spots this year.

You would be surprised how fast things can get good when the sun actually comes out. We had rain on the morning of May 14. We had heavy dew on the morning of the 15. The sun came out and the wind picked up and these grasses were ready to go at 2 p.m. on that day.

We had robust fires one day following a rain. It went way better than I thought it might on the last day.  

We highlighted the last day with two very special events.  For the first time in my 20 years of lighting fires, I stuck my Polaris Ranger two times.  One was really bad and required every rope, strap, cable, chain and heavy-duty ratchet strap to reach out to get me out.

Did I mention I was attached to a backhoe on the other end? All of my stuff was coated in mud.  That was fun cleaning all of those up.

The other time was much less severe. A short strap and another Ranger and I was again up and operating. The one thing I will say in my defense is that I am carrying anywhere from 30-60 gallons of water on this rig. It does add a lot of weight.

We are finished for the burning season, so now I can off load the water tank and insert the seeder. Now till June 15 is native grass seeding time. I can’t wait.

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