Keep It Between the Ditches

The ditch on our rural road.
The ditch on our rural road. | Source

“Just keep it between the ditches.”

I was a little bit nervous, but seeing as how it was my Mom who was giving me my first driving lesson, I soon settled down. Since our rural road had very little traffic, even at ‘rush hour’, my Mom considered it good practice for me to start driving on an actual road rather than in a parking lot.

Questioning Mom on how I would manage to drive in the right lane when I was sitting on the left side, she answered: “You’ll automatically end up where you’re looking, so just keep looking at the road ahead and you’ll be fine!” “Keep it between the ditches”, she reiterated.

Northern Cardinal foraging on the ground in my roadside ditch.
Northern Cardinal foraging on the ground in my roadside ditch. | Source

Mom was right, of course, and I’m proud to say I passed my driver’s test on my first try. But every time I think about a ditch, I am reminded of my first driving lesson and my Mom’s gentle wisdom. My interest in them then was little more than the idea that if I were to accidentally go off into the ditch, I would probably break an axle! At that time, our ditches were quite narrow and very deep.

I daresay that most of us barely give ditches a second thought. When my brothers and I were much younger, though, we put ourselves in charge of the ditch in front of our house. In the spring when things were beginning to thaw, we busied ourselves everyday after school and on weekends. After finding a suitable 'ditch stick', we set about de-icing and pulling garbage from the ditch. If we found a clump of dead leaves and sticks clogging the flowing icy water, that was placed on the upper edge out of the way. It was kind of a messy job, but that didn't matter to us!

Crown Vetch is just one of the myriad plants found in the ditch environment.
Crown Vetch is just one of the myriad plants found in the ditch environment. | Source

Have You Ever Thought About Ditches as Wildlife Habitats?

  • Yes, as a matter of fact, I have!
  • Nope. They're just places on the side of the road.
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The more I thought about and observed birds, though, the more I came to realize how important those ditches are to wildlife. From ditches emerge game birds like turkeys, pheasants and quail. Beautiful bobolinks, that once were so plentiful, call marshes and overgrown ditches home. Turtles and little bug-eating lizards enjoy the damp, cool environment among the tall grass stems. Fireflies, frogs and toads exist most happily in and around the ditch setting.

Roadsides for Wildlife is a group of individuals dedicated to documenting and restoring undisturbed roadsides. It was established in Minnesota in 1984 by Carmelita Nelson to explore the rich potential of this essential, but forgotten habitat. There are hundreds of thousands of acres of roadside environments across the U.S. Think of all the wide grass ditches on the interstates, as well as country roads and utility easements!

I like to take walks along our road, and I never fail to carry a trash bag and gloves with me. Sadly, there are ALWAYS assorted pieces of junk and soft drink cups, potato chip bags and a broken beer bottle or two, among other things, littering the ditches. Unfortunately, to a lot of people ditches are just another place to toss whatever is in their hand at the time. No thought is given to what that stuff does to the environment, or what animal’s nest might be on the receiving end of their lazy carelessness.

Some of the Many Animals That Live in the Ditch Environment

Invertebrates
Reptiles & Amphibians
Birds & Mammals
Earthworms
Frogs
Game Birds & Songbirds
Dragonflies
Salamanders
Foxes
Crayfish/Crawdads
Turtles
Deer
Male and Female Pheasant foraging on the side of the road by the ditch.
Male and Female Pheasant foraging on the side of the road by the ditch. | Source

Birds Rely on Ditch Environments

So many songbirds and game birds rely on the ditch and marsh environment. It’s a rich source of protein in the form of insects and invertebrates; but it is also a water filtration system. Rainfall that accumulates in a ditch percolates into the soil and is absorbed and filtered by the reeds and native grasses. That is why we need to educate the masses when it comes to tampering with Earth’s perfect plan.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Dragonfly resting on the warm road next to the ditch.Red Salamanders love the cool and damp ditch environment.Robber Fly perched on small dead stump in ditch.crayfish/crawdad
Dragonfly resting on the warm road next to the ditch.
Dragonfly resting on the warm road next to the ditch. | Source
Red Salamanders love the cool and damp ditch environment.
Red Salamanders love the cool and damp ditch environment. | Source
Robber Fly perched on small dead stump in ditch.
Robber Fly perched on small dead stump in ditch. | Source
crayfish/crawdad
crayfish/crawdad | Source

Some of the Best Wildlife Habitats are Messy!

People as a society don’t seem to appreciate the ‘messiness’ of natural habitats. Ditches definitely fall in to the ‘messy’ category with the tall reeds, sedges and slimy denizens lurking therein. Snails, mollusks, dragonflies, damsel flies, and yes, mosquitoes do inhabit these freshwater areas.

And there is the idea that letting ditches grow untamed will allow hordes of mosquitoes to overtake the countryside. That perception is totally false. Leave Nature to ‘do its thing’, and you will have no trouble with insects that are out of control. Rather, that happens when toxic chemicals and loss of habitat come in to play.

Northern Shrikes love little lizards and insects found in ditch areas.
Northern Shrikes love little lizards and insects found in ditch areas. | Source

Invasive Fancy Grasses are Multiplying

Most of the fancy grass varieties that look good in a container, or at the back of the garden, will multiply pervasively to the expense of our native sedges and reeds. They tend to be way too tall, wide and thick for game birds to navigate and use safely. But they are taking over those areas rapidly. Just one escaped exotic grass variety can wreak havoc across a wide area in a very short time.

It is very interesting and revealing to note that when ditches are allowed to grow undeterred by humans, the bird and wildlife population can jump by about 30% in a 2-year period! That increase reflects not only those birds that normally prefer ditches and hedgerows, but all native insect and seed-eating birds as well.

Parenthetically, mosquito-eating frogs and toads may increase by approximately the same amount, as will the little lizards that are loved by many birds like our Northern Shrikes. Can you imagine how we could begin to restore our declining songbird population if ditches were allowed to reach their natural potential?

Ruffed Grouse--Pennsylvania State Bird These game birds call ditches, fields and forbs their homes.
Ruffed Grouse--Pennsylvania State Bird These game birds call ditches, fields and forbs their homes. | Source

Game Birds Enjoy Ditch Habitats

Wild turkeys, grouse, woodcocks, bobwhites, rails, moorhens, coots, gallinules, red-winged black birds, partridges and quail are just some of the other birds that depend on ditches, tall grasses, hedgerows and marshes for nesting and foraging. They are rich sources of protein for growing baby birds, and they provide essential cover and shelter for nests and nestlings. The disappearance of these environments and the routine use of chemical pesticides and herbicides is directly related to the shrinking populations of these amazing birds.

Listen to this Pheasant Call! Pheasants Use Ditches, Fields & Forbs--video from redjered

Birds like pheasants need tall grasses and hedgerows in which to hide and nest. In order to call in a hen pheasant, the male puts himself at risk. To lower that risk, he will pop his head up above the tall grass to look for nearby predators. If he determines none are in the area, he will begin to make his very distinctive call. He must constantly check the area while calling in the hens so that they can remain safe as they zero in on his location.

Win - Win Situation for Ditch Habitats

Scientists are looking into the idea of harnessing cellulosic energy as a possible long-term energy solution. Much like corn that is being used today to make alternative fuel, the forbs of pastures, wildflower fields, prairies and ditches may yield an inexpensive and easily sustainable fuel source.

That would mean a win-win situation for animals and humans. Delaying mowing of the ditches until after the breeding season (July 15), but before it is too late for the vegetation to maintain next year’s optimum height for game birds and other wildlife (August 30), would insure nest sites remain undisturbed for the required 40 days. Plenty of ‘fuel grass’ would then be available for processing into a renewable energy source.

Wild lilies and many different grass varieties, along with wild violets and grapevines thrive in ditch settings.
Wild lilies and many different grass varieties, along with wild violets and grapevines thrive in ditch settings. | Source
Black-capped Chickadee found a juicy insect for her chicks.
Black-capped Chickadee found a juicy insect for her chicks. | Source

Some animals that use ditches are: rabbits, voles, deer, foxes, common yellowthroats, meadowlarks, mallards, bobolinks, and American kestrels. All often hunt for amphibians, reptiles and insects found in these cool, damp environs.

Plentiful caterpillars and spiders, a main food source for baby birds, are fond of native grasses and sedges. Chickadee parents must hunt for and feed their youngsters several pounds of protein-rich caterpillars and insects before they leave the nest.

Nest Boxes and Ditches

Nest boxes placed near ditches that have adjacent open fields will attract bluebirds, which will then do much to control the insect population, just like Pheasants. Game birds like Woodcocks probe the mud with their long beaks for earthworms, which are their primary protein source.

The ditch on the other side of our rural road.
The ditch on the other side of our rural road. | Source

Understanding the relationship between wildlife and ditch environments leads to a better result for humans and animals. This world is teeming with life in every nook and corner. It’s up to us to recognize and minimize the negative impacts we make on our natural surroundings.

The next time you are out driving, look over at the side of the road. And remember to 'keep it between the ditches'!

Grandma Pearl a/k/a Connie Smith
Grandma Pearl a/k/a Connie Smith | Source

'You can create yard and garden habitats that Help Birds to Survive and Thrive'



Read more by visiting grandmapearl.hubpages.com

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Did You Ever Think Much About Ditches? 33 comments

billybuc profile image

billybuc 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

You are so knowledgeable, and you have this really cool grasp of information others would never think of. I have to admit my friend that I have never given ditches a thought regarding wildlife habitats. Great information. I will never go for a walk in the future without peering into the ditches in search of life.

Love it, Pearl! Thank you!


carol7777 profile image

carol7777 3 years ago from Arizona

As always something new to learn from you. Hope all is well with you in your life.


Vickiw 3 years ago

I loved this Hub, so well documented and with your beautiful photos. I think it must be so lovely to see those beautiful birds, especially the cardinals. I have never seen one. The ditches are a precious habitat for all kinds of creatures, and it is great that people with your vision are looking after them. I do get so annoyed by people who throw their garbage out into the roads and ditches. Great Hub


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

Billy, Thank you! Ditches do support so much biodiversity, but they really are one of those things you don't think about. Life goes on all around us, adapting and struggling to survive. I think it's fun to explore the cool forgotten places.

Thanks my friend for stopping by, and for your sweet comments. You are very much appreciated ;) Pearl


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

Hi Carol! I'm so glad you stopped by. I am very well, and I hope you are enjoying all this heat! I think I might have to go spend some time in the ditch to cool off!

It's always wonderful to see your smiling face, my friend ;) Pearl


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

Hi Vicki! Thank you for your gracious words. I know you are very aware of how important wildlife habitats are for maintaining biodiversity. You and I share that love for wild things. I just adore my cardinals. Maybe someday you can come south and visit me and my redbirds! We could have a great time, my friend ;) Pearl


Vickiw 3 years ago

I would love that! I must look up the map to see where you are - I know you are really far away from me!


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

Vicki, I'm on the New York State/Pennsylvania border in a very small rural community called Big Flats, NY. I would be most happy to see you anytime!


sgbrown profile image

sgbrown 3 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

What an interesting hub! It's so true that ditches are an important part of our ecosystem. Many animals depend on the shelter, water and food that they find in ditches. I fondly remember, that as a child I used to go "crawdad fishing" in the ditches near our house. What fun that was as a kid. Wonderful hub, voting up, useful and interesting! :)


leatherwood profile image

leatherwood 3 years ago from Ringtown, PA

Beautifully done. My husband does the bag and gloves walk here, unfortunately there is always a lot of garbage from passing automobiles. It is good that the traffic is so little out this way. I love the way you convey your message and the way you change from one point, learning to drive, into the main point was great. Hope your enjoying the heat :)


The Dirt Farmer profile image

The Dirt Farmer 3 years ago from United States

What an original and insightful hub! Really enjoyed it. Shared & voted up.


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

Hi sg! So glad to see you! I love that you did the crawdad fishing thing, that's so cool! There's so much biodiversity in these important habitats, I'm surprised that it is only in the last decade that thought has been given to managing them for wildlife.

Thanks so much for your visit, and your interesting comments! Your supportive votes are very much appreciated ;) Pearl


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

Hi leatherwood! I wonder how many people would appreciate it if passersby threw junk into their homes! Probably because most of these animals prefer to remain hidden from view, people have no clue that they are even there. Still, that's no excuse for being lazy and throwing garbage out the car window!

I enjoyed reading your comments, and I applaud your efforts to keep the roads free of trash. You obviously care very much about our environment!

Actually, this heat is oppressive--but come wintertime, I'm sure I'll long for it again. The worst part is knowing that a chickadee family is toughing it out in one of my birdhouses out back. This will be the third bunch of baby birds they have raised so far this season! Have a wonderful day ;) Pearl


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

Thank you Jill! I'm so glad you liked this article. I truly appreciate your support and share, my friend ;) Pearl


aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

We used to have snapping turtles back in Maine that would lay their eggs near ditches, too. Definitely keep pesticides out of these areas for the sake of our animals. Not only that, it can cause problems for the pets that we walk along the side of the road. Great work, Connie!


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

Thanks Deb! We have turtles that live up the road on one side of the ditch. They cross over to the other side where there is a small willow-shaded stream running adjacent to the ditch area. Plenty of tall grass and bugs for them to enjoy there. I am so glad that there is no pesticide program in this area. If there were, you can be sure I'd be the first to holler at the powers that be! Toxic pesticides are a curse on our Earth.

How are your birds doing with the excessive heat out there?

Have a great weekend ;) Pearl


bravewarrior profile image

bravewarrior 3 years ago from Central Florida

Pearl, I never thought about roadside ditches as habitats, but of course they are! I was aware of the bugs and slithering species, grasses and wildflowers, but didn't think about how those inhabitants attract those higher on the food chain.

Once again you have educated and enlighted me. Love your driving story (what a great intro to this hub!). I remember wondering the same thing about staying on the right side of the road when your sitting in the left side of the car. Your mom was right. Look straight ahead and you'll naturally position yourself.


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

bravewarrior, I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who wondered about that driving thing! It really made me anxious before I even had my first lesson; but as always, I worried for nothing.

I knew you would understand about the ditch habitats--you are so in tune with the natural world all around us. When I walked the road the other day after it had rained, the fresh air was intoxicating. At one section of the road there is a small drainage cistern that doubles as a mini pond complete with rushes and cattails. Just before I get to that spot I have to slow down and watch carefully. All of a sudden, there are multiple 'plops' as tree peepers hop from the edge of the ditch into the water to hide. That never ceases to make me smile!

I really enjoyed your visit, as always; and your wonderful support. Thank you, my friend ;) Pearl


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 3 years ago from Fife, Scotland

Oh this is fabulous!! I have seen frogs and small lizards as well as insects around our ditches in the UK, but I didn't realise just how essential they are to other species of wildlife.

I love the way that your enthusiasm for our natural world comes across in your writing but without missing out on essential facts. I will look much more closely at the ditches near to my home in future.

Great hub and I've learned a lot from this wonderful article! Voted up + shared.


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

Seeker, thank you! I'm pleased you enjoyed this article. It makes my day to know that I'm getting my message across in a good way! It's so nice of you to write such supportive and interesting comments.

It's always good to have you visit, my friend. I thank you very much for your votes and share ;) Pearl


Eiddwen profile image

Eiddwen 3 years ago from Wales

Such a wonderful hub as always my dear friend and certainly one to make us sit up and think. I love each and every one of your hubs and voting up plus sharing. Also sharing onto my FB page A Brand New Dawn. Have a great day Pearl.

Lots of love

Eddy.


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

Dear Eddy, Thank you! I am always so pleased to have you visit me and my birds here in New York State! Your comments touch my heart, and I am very grateful for the votes and shares. I want to check out your FB page and see what you have been up to lately, my talented and beautiful friend ;) Pearl


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 3 years ago from England

This was awesome pearl, and so very important too. where I live most of the roads have been cleared because 'posh' people live here, it drove me mad to see a wonderful walkway down to the river that had never changed, trees ditches and wildlife, suddenly spruced up for the houses. All the trees were gone, well, most of them, and the ditches were all tarmac! what? I could have screamed! voted up and shared, nell


FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

This is a beautiful, thought-provoking hub that is well written and constructed. There is so much to learn and see here in this hub. As a nature lover, I enjoyed it immensely. I always take along a bag when I go walking so as to collect other people's trash -- a way of giving back to nature for all the beauty. Voted up and more.


rebeccamealey profile image

rebeccamealey 3 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

What a thought provoking and unique topic!


Phyllis Doyle profile image

Phyllis Doyle 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

Ah! Ditches were a natural part of my childhood in the Pacific Northwest. I still stop along my journeys, driving or walking to sit and gaze along ditches to see what types of flora and fauna are in that habitat -- ditches are fascinating places for me.

This is a great, informational hub, wonderful photos and brings back many memories. It is so important that more people are aware of the need and purpose of ditches and how they benefit wildlife and can benefit humans as well. Great hub!


BNadyn profile image

BNadyn 3 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida

This is such an informative hub! I have not given much thought to ditches as habitats to animals so I'm glad I know better now; it really is important to be aware so that we can help prevent ways to harm it. It is sad to see many ditches cluttered with litter like a land fill and how generous of you and your siblings to be a big help in cleaning it up. Voted up and sharing so we can all be better informed. :)


Millionaire Tips profile image

Millionaire Tips 3 years ago from USA

I hadn't thought about of ditches as being habitats, but I can see from your hub and its gorgeous photos that they are! Voted up.


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

Hi Nell! So nice to see you. It saddens me too, when people think everything green has to be tamed to fit their own agendas. I guess their priorities lie elsewhere, but habitat is shrinking at an alarming rate. Global warming has a lot to do with concrete, steel and lack of 'messy' natural greenness. Hopefully one day soon more people will get the idea that we aren't the only inhabitants of this old Earth!

I'm so glad you stopped by; and thank you very much for the Vote and Share my friend ;) Pearl


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

FlourishAnyway, thank you so much for your very supportive comments! You and I take great pride in our environments, and I appreciate that you want to give back to nature by cleaning up after disrespectful trash tossers. I am thankful that there are more programs in schools now to help educate young children about the importance of natural habitats and the creatures that use them. That is my hope for the future; plus people like you, and other wonderful members of this hubpages community!

Thank you so much for stopping by, and for the votes. You are appreciated, my friend ;) Pearl


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

Hi rebeccamealey! Thank you so much for visiting. I'm pleased you found this article interesting, and that you took the time to comment. Have a wonderful day ;) Pearl


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

Phyllis, thank you so much for your wonderful comments. I enjoyed reading about your childhood link to ditches; and your continued curiosity of what is to be discovered in them. We share the same fascination and regard for this mostly forgotten but vitally important habitat. So many awesome animals, insects and birds call these places home.

I'm very pleased you stopped by; and I thank you so much for your support ;) Pearl


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

Millionaire Tips, it's always nice to see you! Thank you for your kind words, and for letting me know that I am helping to raise awareness about this amazing type of habitat. I really enjoy passing on the importance of the not-so-obvious places where animals and birds can flourish.

I very much appreciate your vote, and your comments ;) Pearl

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