Cutting cattails

One of Fermilab’s long-term ecological goals is to improve the diversity of its habitat communities to meet the needs of wildlife. We recently had some visible success — with nice surprises — in attracting more birds to the grounds by managing the marshes at A.E. Sea.

And the success lay in cutting cattails.

In summer 2017, we hired a subcontractor to cut the cattails below the water’s surface using a specialized boat. This removal method was to test whether we could drown cattails rather than use large quantities of herbicide.

We made each cut at three different times — early June, late June, early July — to test whether the timing of the cutting mattered in relation to drowning.

This spring we see virtually no regrowth in any of the cut strips. It seems timing did not matter and, importantly, we can cut and drown cattails effectively.

An unexpected result was the number and diversity of marsh birds that used the cut strips. Examples include least bittern, sora and, this year, common gallinule. Marshland birds seem to prefer the interface area between open water and dense cattail edge.

Now, the Fermilab Ecological Land Management Committee is working on a plan to cut many more strips within these cattail areas. This will provide even more edge habitat for these marshland birds, many of which are priorities for conservation in Illinois.

You can see before-and-after pictures below. We hope this effort will encourage rare birds to take advantage of the open water-cattail edge created by the cuttings. Our dedicated, volunteer bird monitors will help us determine results over time.

Ryan Campbell is the Fermilab ecologist. Dave Shemanske is the head of Fermilab Roads and Grounds.


  • This is what A.E. Sea was like before the cutting ... Photo: Ryan Campbell
    This is what A.E. Sea was like before the cutting ... Photo: Ryan Campbell