Illinois is hoping for another good pheasant season in 2019, and habitat is looking great
By Andrew Johnson
Pheasant hunters in Illinois had a successful year in 2018, more than doubling the number of roosters they dropped in 2017. According to a report from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, 11,692 pheasant hunters harvested an estimated 68,112 wild pheasants last season, an increase of 101 percent from 2017’s harvest totals.
That’s good news for pheasants and pheasant hunters in Illinois, and the hope is that the wild weather the state experienced this spring and summer didn’t put a dent in the state’s rising bird population.
“The Illinois winter was mild in December but switched to short bursts of snow and cold in January,” explains Jason Bleich, a PF/QF conservation specialist in the Land of Lincoln. “There were a couple extreme cold snaps in late January and February, but winter mortality was likely low. There were also some late snows into March and April, but coming into the spring there were stable numbers of birds.”
Bleich says spring nesting conditions were a little tougher than usual.
“It started raining in April and didn’t stop until the end of June, making it one of the wettest springs we’ve ever experienced,” he says. “The wet weather significantly delayed nesting across the state, but we’ve observed some late hatches and very young broods well into July and August.”
Brood-rearing conditions have been a roller-coaster ride for pheasants throughout the summer, according to Bleich.
“We went from three months of rainfall and flooding to drought conditions throughout much of Illinois,” Bleich says. “Brood-rearing conditions have been positive where there’s good, diverse habitat. Also, delayed and reduced mowing across the state has allowed for many improved acres of brood-rearing habitat.”
HABITAT AND COUNTS
All that said, Bleich believes most of the Illinois’ primary pheasant habitat is looking great going into the fall.
“In the last Farm Bill, Illinois landowners and producers installed nearly 110,000 acres of CRP Pollinator Habitat, along with several thousand new CRP SAFE acres and Field Borders,” he says. “Now that most of those acres are three to five years old, the habitat structure and the pheasant response are skyrocketing.”
The good news doesn’t stop there, either, as results from IDNR’s annual bird surveys showed a 48.8 percent increase in the number of pheasants along annual bird survey routes this year.
“Both the Illinois DNR Pheasant Habitat Areas and private lands with CRP are producing good bird numbers where there’s good habitat,” Bleich concludes. “Where there’s good habitat, we are seeing pheasant hunters returning to the field and the upland hunting culture is returning.”
Bleich believes pheasant hunters should expect stable numbers of birds on both public and private lands this fall.
“In regions that experienced an extremely wet spring, bird numbers may be tempered,” Bleich admits. “But the DNR has acquired multiple new Pheasant Habitat Areas which will be open for hunting by permit, and the recent increases in CRP acres and other conservation program acres will directly correlate to more birds in the bag this fall.
“The highest concentrations of wild birds continue to be found in east-central Illinois, although numbers are increasing throughout the whole northern two-thirds of the state,” he concludes. “Lots of regions are now seeing increases in healthy, huntable numbers, and northwest Illinois has seen a nice bump in numbers recently.”
IF YOU GO
Bleich also wants hunters to take advantage of the Illinois Recreational Access Program (IRAP), which has leased private property in Christian, Clay and Scott counties for quail and pheasant hunting. These sites can be reserved for a two-day hunt on Saturdays and Sundays in December, and they can accommodate up to four hunters and their dogs.
More information on the IRAP program can be found online here
The Illinois pheasant season is open November 2 to Jan. 8 in the north zone, and from November 2 to January 15 in the south zone. The daily limit is 2 roosters, with a possession limit of 6 birds.