Prairie State Pheasant Forecast

Pheasant hunting in Illinois isn't what it used to be, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy a few good days afield this season.

Photo by Gary Clancy

By Ted Peck

If last season was your first wild ring-necked pheasant hunting experience in Illinois, you can expect slightly better hunting over the next couple of months in the Prairie State. But if pursuit of this multi-colored bird has been a passion for a considerable length of time, the outlook for the 2004-05 season is several shades beyond the downside of dismal, with no hope on the horizon that we'll see pheasant hunting even come close to the last year of merit almost a decade ago.

I've been hunting Illinois ringnecks for over 40 years now in an experience that has come full circle, from being a young hunter in the early 1960s to grinning at the wide-eyed excitement my teenage nephew Darrin Marcure experienced when a solid point by my 2-year-old yellow Lab, Hanna Banana, coughed out a pair of long-tailed roosters in the season just past.

Darrin and I hunted the family farm in Jo Daviess County twice last season, filling limits on both occasions thanks to exceptional habitat found there and a dog with wisdom far beyond her years. Hanna retrieved maybe a dozen Illinois ringnecks last year on almost that many outings. That's not exactly stellar action when juxtaposed with the pheasant picture in neighboring states - or pheasant hunting right here at home when I was Darrin's age.

I killed 73 roosters in Illinois back in 1973. Most of these were shot over Jill, a Lab who could have worked for the IRS - she typically took about 20 percent of the bird before you got to see it. Not that it mattered. Pheasants were everywhere back then. It was the age of family farms. The highlight of the '73 season was a trip to a farm outside of Champaign. I remember emptying the old Browning and not touching a feather in a covey rise of ringnecks that had to number at least 60 birds, maybe 80.

As the saying goes, that was then, and this is now. And in the season about to open, seeing Hanna point another pair of roosters will likely generate the same jaw-dropping response witnessed 30 years ago downstate.

There are fewer pheasant hunters than ever before, according to statistics compiled by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

"There are now more duck hunters out there than pheasant hunters," said DNR upland game specialist John Cole. "This trend speaks volumes in regard to our pheasant hunting situation."

Cole said DNR statistics indicate about 50,000 hunters killed about 175,000 ringnecks statewide last season, up from 140,000 birds the year before.

"We have reason to believe that, given good weather conditions, the Illinois pheasant population in the 40 counties considered our prime pheasant range will continue to improve," Cole said. "But with only a total of about 200,000 acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), there is no reason to expect good hunting outside of established pockets of good habitat."

Of these set-aside acres, approximately 114,000 acres are in grassy fields, with the remainder in narrow "filter strips" that probably hold the greatest potential for creating pheasant habitat in the future. The DNR pheasant specialist said about 1,000 acres of CRP ground was lost to the plow since last year, citing USDA statistics.

"Spiraling land values here are a major reason there is no reason we can expect this situation to improve," he continued. "Iowa has about 1.9 million acres in CRP, about the same as South Dakota. In North Dakota, there are about 3.3 million acres of set-aside ground."

Cole emphasized that the Pheasants Forever mantra about habitat being the key is right on target.

"Where you have good grassland habitat, you'll find pheasants," Cole said. "I'm not talking wetlands habitat, or set-aside that centers around forestry. I'm talking grasslands. If you have grasslands, the pheasants are a natural byproduct."

Statistics regarding pheasant harvest over the years support Cole's contention. The last year for significant pheasant harvest in Illinois was during the 1995-96 season. Hunters that year took home over 335,000 ringnecks. DNR records indicate the tally was less than half this number the next year, in direct correspondence to large-scale expiration of CRP set-aside acreage in Illinois. The kill continued a steady decline until 1999-2000, when less than 138,000 pheasants were shot statewide, the lowest harvest ever recorded.

"Hunter interest declined with the drop in the pheasant population as well," Cole noted. "According to DNR surveys, there was fully a 50 percent decline in the number of pheasant hunters during the 1990s."

Those who pine for a harvest of 300,000-plus like we saw in 1995 should have been around in 1973. An estimated 1 million ringnecks went home in the game bag that year, with harvest in other seasons about that time very close to this mark.

The Conservation Reserve Program wasn't even conceived back then. There was no need for such a plan. Pheasants were a byproduct of agriculture. And the family farm with plenty of grassy waterways, brushy fencerows and a matrix of other outstanding habitat was the way things were done back then. Toward the end of this decade there was great demand for corn in the world market. The government urged farmers to till up every available acre for planting. Then came three tough winters that issued in the 1980s. With precious little overwinter cover, the pheasant population took a nosedive.

If it weren't for CRP and groups like Pheasants Forever, Cole opines that we might not even be hunting pheasants in the 21st century. But we still are. And Cole believes creating incentive for water-quality improvement holds the key to the future of wild pheasants in Illinois.

"Erosion is a problem on a considerable amount of Illinois farm ground," the biologist said, "especially on farm ground with less-than-stellar crop production potential. It stands to reason that this is where farmers need to change their land-use practices by placing filter strips that will help control erosion. There are many counties in the prime pheasant range in the northern two-thirds of the state where set-aside acres could be doubled or even tripled without drastically affecting crop yields. Part of this is an education process that needs to be coordinated with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service."

Cole believes the government needs to create incentives for taking marginal land out of production, which is no easy process in a state where land values are so high.

"Fine-tuning CRP participation parameters might be the way to go," Cole said. "Under current guidelines a farmer might have 40 acres that qualify for CRP enrollment. Perhaps the greatest need would be in a linear filter strip of maybe 20 acres, enabling the farmer to keep the other 20 possibly marginal acres in crop production."

Cole also believes the demographics of the typical pheasant hunter have changed, along with the overall decline in hunter numbers.

"How many people who either work or have close ties to the land are also pheasant hunters?" he pondered. "I expect not many. And with not many family members or close friends showing interest in hunting upland game, the prospect of interesting farmers in setting aside acres for upland wildlife moves even further down the farmer's chart in regard to interest."

Demographics have also changed regarding why persons buy an Illinois hunting license. Surveys from 20 to 30 years ago indicate upland game hunting was a primary reason for hunting license purchase.

"Any more hunting license sales are driven primarily by deer and turkeys," said Cole. "Illinois didn't have a deer season until the mid-1950s, and turkeys weren't even on the radar during the heyday of Illinois' pheasant hunting in the early 1970s."

With fewer people interested in hunting pheasants, the effort expended by the DNR to foster habitat and other programs focused on ringnecks has naturally seen a decline.

The Illinois DNR is going through a period of budget constraints with department heads forced to do a profound amount of political maneuvering in an attempt to maintain or grow programs tailored to their specific interests. Imagine this situation to be a metaphysical game of poker. Years ago when the DNR was called the Illinois Department of Conservation, the person in charge of upland game was dealt a hand of aces - five of them. With pheasants still a byproduct of agriculture, a pair of aces would have been sufficient to claim virtually any program requested. This clout dropped to perhaps the "full house" level by the 1980s, with CRP and Pheasants Forever programs kings and queens in the pheasant chief's hand.

Cole's predecessor was holding a low straight in the early 1990s. When pheasant hunter numbers dropped 50 percent in the late 1990s to about 50,000 - where they remain today - the cards were dealt again, and John Cole found himself staring at a pair of deuces.

Since the upland program no longer enjoys any political clout, Cole was forced to "think outside the box." Herein lies his brainchild for selling pheasant habitat by beating the drum for better water quality through establishment of filter strips. In our politically correct world the pursuit of pure water to nurture petunias along the bike trail is more important than planting grassland for the express purpose of promoting a "sporting" opportunity for a bunch of gruff and surly men with their smelly dogs. Couple this notion with surveys indicating that the hunter who comes knocking on the farmer's door is looking for a place to chase gobblers and deer, and it's easy to see why the concept of pheasant hunting and habitat for upland game as a stand-alone entity is a thing of the past.

Even the best possible shot of increasing pheasant habitat through more filter strips is finding some bumps in the road. Cole cited a recent study that is almost completed in the once-prime pheasant range of Ford and Champaign counties that deals with the effectiveness of filter strips as primary pheasant habitat.

"It appears the two biggest problems pheasants face with filter-strip habitat is threat from predators, and disturbance by agricultural operations," said Cole. "And I honestly believe the major culprit is farming practices rather than critters like coyotes."

Cole said contracts signed by farmers in the study area indicated that they would try to avoid grassy filter-strip areas.

"However, we see many instances where farmers are using the filter strips as travel lanes on the way to their crop grounds or as turn-around spots at the end of crop production areas," he said. "This, of course, devastates pheasant habitat."

The extent to how much this habitat was damaged and the effect on pheasants won't truly be known until we're seriously into hunting season. This situation holds true statewide.

Projecting pheasant numbers and hunter success has never been more than a semi-educated guess. A great deal has happened between the end of last pheasant season, with the potential of the pheasant season at hand not truly known until next spring when surveys are analyzed.

Weather is second only to habitat when dealing with pheasant survival or mortality. If pheasants have overwinter and escape cover, most healthy birds will survive a profoundly devastating weather event like freezing rain or deep snow that persists in a condition beyond "average."

Last winter was fairly mild across Illinois' prime pheasant range, with the epicenter of pheasant production in central Illinois actually seeing more snow than the secondary zone in the northern tiers of counties. Coming out of the winter we saw a great deal of rain in late May and early June that held the potential of flooding out nests of young pheasants.

The diet of pheasants changes considerably as the birds mature. Early on, insects are a major component. If environmental conditions produce a year when there are few insects at that point in time when pheasant's dietary needs call for this kind of food, the population suffers. Backing down the food chain a notch, insect proliferation depends on flowers - known as forbs - that are a natural part of grassland habitat that meets many other pheasant needs.

Another variable is predators. Pheasants are a prey species for everything from hawks and owls to coyotes, foxes, raccoons and feral cats. Predators must be good at what they do to survive.

While filter strips hold great promise as pheasant habitat, a strip of grasses 50 feet wide is much easier for a predator to cover than a five-acre field. Imagine a coyote to be more adept at his craft than the best wide-ranging pointer you've ever seen. It doesn't take long for a pointer to cover 80 acres when pheasant cover is a series of habitat belts. Coyotes can do it even quicker. And they don't jump back in the truck and go home after a couple hours in the field.

Disease is another problem, with both naturally occurring and manmade maladies threatening pheasant survival. Imagine a field full of weeds in the flower stage that are attracting insects at the precise time pheasants need bugs for survival. These beautiful weeds are in competition with crops that the farmer has planted to make a living. The farmer has no choice. He kills the weeds, and that takes out the bugs and - you get the picture.

But survival on an annual basis is not always gloom and doom. With a mild winter, no late freezing rain, a moderate spring and temperate summer, pheasants can prosper. Under the best conditio

ns a hen may produce a large brood, or even nest a second time. And her initial clutch may grow to the point where they can nest, too. Predicting this kind of year - or conditions on the other end of the spectrum - is nearly impossible.

Just how many pheasants get produced in a given year depends on how many breeding hens there are under a given set of habitat and weather conditions. The more habitat there is, the more nesting hens there are liable to be. One rooster can service an almost infinite number of hens, the main reason why Illinois pheasant harvest has always been restricted to cockbirds only.

A longstanding method for assessing pheasant populations is conducting "call counts" in the spring. Another is surveys by rural mail carriers. Even though hens are what drives the pheasant population, biologists attempt to establish population parameters by listening to roosters crowing to each other in establishing territory before breeding season, which is followed by nesting season and all of the events that lead up to opening day.

What kind of pheasant season is it going to be? We'll know next spring. But looking out across the back 40 of my rural Winnebago County home, I've got to believe that hunting will be better this year than last year. Back in June I heard three roosters calling to each other when savoring a cup of coffee on the deck one morning. In the spring of 2003 I never heard a bird back there, or even saw one roaming on the home place.

A week after hearing three cocks crowing, Hanna Banana, the yellow Lab, was patrolling the perimeter of "Hannaland" and flushed a rooster less than 100 yards from the house. I swear that dog was smiling when she came trotting back. And I found myself grinning back at her.

Since that time she's been able to get some work by retrieving doves and a few ducks. But we both know the "big day" is close at hand. We'll probably only shoot one, maybe two, roosters behind the house. Gotta save some for seed.

Hanna will never see a 73-rooster year on Illinois pheasants. But she will see her hunting efforts rewarded. It's all about perspective. You make the most out of the cards you're dealt and give thanks that you can still go pheasant hunting in Illinois.

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