Habitat initiatives give Illinois pheasants hope. Pheasants held their own through winter, spring and summer.
By Tom Carpenter
“Overall, the weather from July to September was pretty good for upland game birds in most of the state,” says Stan McTaggart, Agriculture and Grassland Program Manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). “The notable exception was a small portion of northern Illinois where they had some severe flooding. But there, and statewide, conditions seemed pretty good for birds that re-nested and for birds that were raising broods in July and early August.”
“We finished our Annual Upland Surveys in early July and found a slight decrease in the number of pheasants encountered along our routes,” says McTaggart. “Pheasant populations in the state are at an all-time low though.
“Last year’s harvest was estimated at less than 15,000 wild birds compared to annual harvests of 200,000 to 400,000 from the 1970’s through the early 1990’s,” says McTaggart. “We continue to lose habitat and connectivity between patches of habitat.”
There are some slivers of hope. “Some landowners have been enrolling in various Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) practices that can provide great pheasant habitat,” says McTaggart. “Examples include CP4D Wildlife Habitat, CP33 Upland Bird Habitat Buffers, CP38 State Acres for Wildlife and CP42 Pollinator Habitat.”
“But we are just not keeping pace with the loss of habitat and deterioration of habitat quality statewide,” he adds.
An Illinois pheasant hunter still has to get out after birds, though, and McTaggart offers up some ideas.
“The top counties in the state for pheasant would be in east-central Illinois (Ford, Iroquois and Livingston Counties), due in part to the success of the State Acres for Wildlife (SAFE or CP38) practice of the Conservation Reserve Program there,” says McTaggart. “This practice allows whole field enrollment into CRP, and pheasants do well in larger blocks of grassland.”
“Management of existing grassland is also very important. Prescribed burning, block disking and strategic herbicide applications help maintain the early successional characteristics that pheasant thrive in,” says McTaggart. That’s good advice for land managers anywhere in pheasant country.
“Other parts of central and northern Illinois have pheasants, and some good hunting can be had in these places,” adds McTaggart. “However, the reality is we continue to experience a decrease in the number of pheasant and pheasant hunters in the state.”
Pheasant Habitat Insights
“I would look for areas that have large patches of grasslands (CRP contracts, for example) that have a mix of forbs and grasses,” he says. “Pheasant need grasslands that offer four 4 things:"
1) Nesting cover that contains the previous year’s grasses mixed with sturdy forbs and bare dirt
2) Quality brood cover that consists of forbs and annual ‘weeds’ with plenty of bare dirt underneath so chicks can move around and find insects
3) Winter cover that includes grasses and forbs that will stand throughout the winter, including heavy snowfall events and high winds
4) Food that is mostly gathered from ‘weed’ seeds and waste grain in surrounding ag fields.
Illinois Hunting Tip
“The best time to pheasant hunt in Illinois,” says McTaggart, “is whenever you can get access to a good spot and you have the time to go! There are still good areas with pheasants. It’s just not as easy to find a spot with good populations. It is important to promote habitat management and establishment whenever possible. The quantity and quality of habitat is the key to upland game populations.”
Tom Carpenter is Digital Content Manager for Pheasants Forever.