What's Up With Illinois' Pheasant Hunting?

While hunters chase ringnecks this season amid declines in the birds' numbers, public and private initiatives promise help for the Prairie State's pheasant populations. (November 2007)

Most of the best pheasant hunting occurs on private ground, but some public-access lands hold fair numbers of birds, too. Ongoing public programs are building momentum toward improved habitat for pheasants and better hunter access to private lands
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

The dog quivered anxiously staring hard into a patch of weeds and short brush alongside a field of corn stubble. The morning sun glistened off the wet grass, as frost was now melting rapidly. As the hunter neared, a cock pheasant flushed madly from the cover amid a shower of moisture spray and the sound of pounding wings.

The dog lurched after the rising bird in a fray of excitement. In a fluid motion, the hunter shouldered his shotgun, swung it smoothly to the left, and gently squeezed the trigger. Boom! The rooster tumbled, and the dog proudly mouthed his prize.

It had been a good morning. This was already the third rooster of the day for the happy group of hunters, and there was plenty of action left. Like the day before, they would all enjoy a great day afield and return home with a savory bounty from the wild for a delicious evening meal.

Unfortunately, the scenario above is one that was played out many years ago and is seldom experienced by pheasant hunters in Illinois today. There still remain plenty of birds out there to hunt, and many people have some great times afield, but pheasant hunting in Illinois is nothing like the "good old days" of yesteryear.

Backgrounder on the Birds

The Prairie State's pheasant population has taken a serious downturn from back in the day. However, it's not just Illinois that has suffered. Many of the other 39 or so states that hold pheasant populations also have seen some decline; however, the Prairie State has not rebounded quite as well as some of the surrounding and Western states.

People are sometimes surprised to learn that ring-necked pheasants are not native to North America. The birds actually are an import from China. Numerous stocking attempts were made in the late 1800s -- most of which were largely unsuccessful. Fortunately, in 1882, a stocking of around 26 ring-necked pheasants was successful in Oregon, and they were soon flourishing in their new country.

Pheasant populations peaked across the country in the 1940s, and great hunting was enjoyed throughout the 1950s and 1960s. But new farming practices in the 1970s brought about major changes to pheasant habitat and subsequent reproduction. This trend continued until 1985 when the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was established. Since then, many pheasant-holding areas across the country have rebounded nicely. CRP provides incentives for landowners and farmers to leave their land fallow or plant it favorably for wildlife.

Unfortunately, Illinois is not one of those areas in the country where landowners have responded well to the CRP. In fact, our state has fewer than 200,000 acres enrolled in the CRP, and the prospect of that number growing is bleak.

The problem with enrolling more lands in CRP is the current value of land. Urban developments and farming pays much better than CRP. Farmland often rents for as much as $100 per acre or more. That same land enrolled in CRP would only pay about $30 per acre.

Yet, states nearby have much more land enrolled in the CRP -- Kansas has 3 million acres; Iowa, nearly 2 million acres; North Dakota, 3 million acres; South Dakota, 1.5 million acres; and Montana, 4 million acres.

Adult pheasants can be adaptable to their habitat to a limited degree. Unfortunately, the average lifespan of a ring-necked pheasant is usually only two years or less, so being somewhat adaptable is of little benefit.

The loss of nesting habitat is the most significant influence affecting Illinois' pheasant population. These ground-nesting birds need vast undisturbed grasslands for nesting and the rearing of broods. As more and more land is stripped of its native grasses, pheasants will continue to decline.

Hunting actually has little effect on pheasant reproduction because of the limited lifespan of the bird and the fact that only roosters may be harvested. Pheasants are polygamous, and males will breed prolifically with multiple females. Most experts agree that even if 90 percent of the males were removed from the population each year by hunting, the remaining males would still be able to breed virtually all of the females.

Pheasants undergo a breeding ritual during the springtime that involves the male birds staking out territory and calling to attract hens. The male then struts similar to a turkey, with feathers ruffled and wattles bright red and swollen. One cock pheasant may have a harem of numerous hens.

The hen then locates or scratches out a shallow depression in tall grass in which to lay her eggs. This nest may be unlined or sparsely lined with vegetation and sometimes a few breast feathers from the hen. The clutch size varies from seven to 11 eggs. The hen incubates the eggs for 23 to 26 days until the chicks hatch. The brood stays with the hen for several weeks, but the young birds grow quickly and will resemble adult birds in only 15 weeks.

This brings us back to the habitat problem. First, there are very limited areas with enough acres of grasslands to support breeding and nesting. Next, even in areas of good grass, a plethora of misfortunes can befall a successful nesting.

Many of the areas chosen by pheasants for nesting are in or near agricultural areas. Some grassy fields are cut for hay, while others are disked and planted with row crops. Some are merely mowed for appearance as part of today's trend of "clean farming" practices. These activities usually result in lost nests or broods.

Even many of the CRP lands are subject to nest and brood failures due to predators or farming. Only half of our 200,000 CRP acres are in broad expanses of grasslands. The other half lies in filter strips and field buffers.

These smaller filter strip and buffer areas are prime pickings for a variety of predators of both eggs and young birds. Coyotes, foxes, hawks and house cats prey heavily on young pheasants. Nests are raided for the eggs by skunks, raccoons and even snakes.

Farming practices on field buffers also destroy nests. During normal farming, it is often difficult to maneuver large tractors and implements. These field-edge strips often become "turn-around" locations for working equi

pment, which can destroy or otherwise affect nesting.

The best pheasant hunting opportunities lie in the counties in Illinois' traditional pheasant range -- the north-central and east-central portions of the state.

Pheasants will usually re-nest after a failed attempt. If a second nest is lost, they will often even nest a third time. However, with each successive nesting the clutch size is usually smaller.

For the Birds

There are some bright spots for the birds' future. One of the most encouraging things going on in the Prairie State is the Pheasants Forever (PF) Wheel Initiative. This program is working toward acquiring new lands and conserving others.

The Wheel Initiative involves the purchase of a central property known as the "hub." This hub property is then developed and managed to provide premium upland habitat. It will eventually be opened to hunting and will serve as the main location for wildlife activity. Then, owners of surrounding properties are encouraged to enroll their lands in CRP and various other conservation programs. This helps boost wildlife populations and movement throughout the entire area.

Illinois currently has four properties that have been acquired through the Wheel Initiative. The most recent acquisition is the 520-acre Thelma Nardin Estate property, located four miles north of Saybrook in McLean County. The Nardin property is currently farmland. A land-use and management plan will be implemented for the property through cooperation of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Pheasants Forever.

"Now that we have purchased the hub for this focus area, the work with the surrounding landowners begins," said Illinois PF conservation director Tom Schwartz. "We are excited to restore wildlife habitat on both the purchased land and the surrounding private lands."

The last property added to the Wheel Initiative was the Cranfield property -- 312 acres, in Montgomery County. The first two properties acquired were the 635-acre Sibley property in Ford County and the 118-acre Whitefield property in Marshall County.

The Wheel Initiative couldn't work without the help and cooperation from many different organizations.

"We are very pleased with the partnership that continues to grow as we develop the habitat Wheel Initiative," Schwartz said. "This program is successful because of the cooperation among the PF chapter volunteers, landowners, state agencies such as the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Illinois Soil and Water Conservation Districts, and federal agencies such as the Farm Service Agency and Natural Resource Conservation Service."

The areas around the hub are being encouraged to enroll in the CRP program and others. IDNR Upland Wildlife Program manager John Cole said that currently, "Pheasants in Illinois are almost totally dependent on CRP grasslands for nesting cover." Getting more people to want to join the land conservation movement is imperative, he added.

"It is possible for pheasant numbers to improve if CRP programs change to improve the targeting of enrollments to focus on erodable soils and water-quality issues. There is movement in this direction in the new farm bill," Cole pointed out. "Also, changes in cropping systems, such as growing biomass crops (or native grasses), could eventually provide more habitat." Grasses are harvested during the fall or winter, so nesting could occur in fields of grasses grown for biomass.

Cole said the IDNR is doing everything possible to sustain and improve pheasant hunting in the state.

"The main thing the IDNR can do is to try to influence the direction of the CRP program to get more erodable land planted to grasses in Illinois," he said.

Generally, CRP pays landowners to plant permanent vegetative cover on parts or all of an agricultural field that is considered highly erodable. The length of the contract is typically 10 or 15 years. Participants are paid annual rental money according to the productivity of the soils. Land eligibility for the program is based on an Environmental Benefits Index, or EBI. There is also a 50 percent cost-sharing component to the program.

Another important program is the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). The CREP focuses on some of the most environmentally sensitive farmlands, which include highly erodable lands.

PF's Tom Schwartz pointed out that CREP benefits a variety of wildlife species in Illinois, including pheasants and quail. He told Illinois Game & Fish magazine the Illinois CREP targets the Illinois River Basin, which covers some 52 counties throughout the state. Willing landowners may enroll eligible agricultural land in this 15-year contract and receive annual payments and other incentives in exchange for retiring the land from farming and development. There are options for extending the contract by entering into an additional 15-year, 35-year or permanent state conservation easement. More than 90 percent of Illinois' current CREP acres are enrolled in permanent easements, which ensure long-term protection.

Landowners, hunters, wildlife and conservationists can all benefit from enrolling lands into the CREP.

"CREP participants retain ownership of their land, and CREP does not place restrictions on recreational activities, including hunting," stated Pheasants Forever. "As a result, CREP acres provide extremely high natural resource benefits, including improvements to water quality, prevention of soil erosion and the creation of wildlife habitat. It is a partnership between the U.S. Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Illinois Department of Agriculture, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and the Association of Illinois Soil, Water and Conservation Districts."

'Birdy' Land in the Prairie State

Although things may not be as great as they once were for pheasant hunting in Illinois, bird numbers still support hunters' exploits, which can produce many good days afield.

The trick to successful pheasant hunting in the Prairie State, of course, is finding the locations that hold birds. Most of the best pheasant hunting occurs on private ground, but some public-access lands hold fair numbers of birds, too.

The best pheasant hunting opportunities lie in the counties in Illinois' traditional pheasant range -- the north-central and east-central portions of the state.

"Huntable numbers of pheasants are found in the north half of the state east of the Illinois River," Cole pointed out, "and on over to the Mississippi River, when you get as far north as Rock Island."

Landowners in the counties throughout the traditional pheasant range will often give permission for hunting to sportsmen who approach them properly and politely. Hunters frequently locate the best areas to hunt when they look at the most recent harvest success data. That data was not available at press time and will be e

xamined in the December 2007 issue of Illinois Game & Fish magazine.

Hunters who do not gain access to private lands can be limited in their wingshooting. Nonetheless, the IDNR works hard to provide as much pheasant hunting opportunity as possible.

Most of the public-access pheasant hunting in Illinois takes place on state-operated/maintained Pheasant Habitat Areas (PHA). PHA locations are noted in the Illinois Digest of Hunting and Trapping Regulations 2007-2008 or by visiting the IDNR Web site at <a href="http:// dnr.state.il.us.

Also, several properties that hold controlled hunts for captive-reared pheasants are located throughout the state. These put-and-take hunts give some solace to those not fortunate enough to find adequate hunting for wild birds. Some of these areas also hold special controlled pheasant hunts for youth and disabled hunters.

The official IDNR pheasant-hunting forecast was not yet available when Illinois Game & Fish magazine went to press. However, early indications point toward bird numbers being up some from the previous assessment.

"Pheasant numbers will probably be up a little from 2005-2006 -- probably around 200,000 birds," Cole predicted.

The 2007 Illinois pheasant-hunting season opens Nov. 3 in both the North Zone and the South Zone. The season closes Jan. 8, 2008, in the North Zone and Jan. 15, 2008, in the South Zone. Hunters in both zones may take two roosters per day, with no more than six in possession after the third day of the season. Hunting hours statewide are from sunrise to sunset.

For out-of-state pheasant hunters coming, non-resident hunting licenses are priced at $50.75 for a full year, and a five-day license costs $28.75. Habitat stamps for both residents and non-residents costs $5.50 per hunter.

To find out more about the CRP, landowners should contact their local United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office or consult the Web site at www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/crp. Guidance is also available by contacting your local Pheasants Forever chapter or visiting Illinois PF online at <a href="http:// www.illinoispf.com Tom Schwartz may be reached at (217) 632-9914 or tschwartz@illinoispf.com.

The CREP is a partnership between the U.S. Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Illinois Department of Agriculture, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and the Association of Illinois Soil, Water and Conservation Districts. Information may be obtained from any of the participating agencies.

More information on pheasant hunting, license requirements and hunting areas may be obtained from the IDNR Web site at www.dnr.state.il.us or in the Illinois Digest of Hunting and Trapping Regulations 2007-2008, which is available from the IDNR or wherever hunting and fishing licenses are sold. The IDNR may also be reached at (217) 782-6384.

Watch for more pheasant hunting information coming next month, right here in Illinois Game & Fish magazine!

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