Hopes are high: Michigan’s habitat and pheasant populations have fared well the past year
By Andrew Johnson
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The 2019 pheasant season was an improvement over the previous year, according to Al Stewart, Michigan Department of Natural Resources upland game specialist.
“Pheasant hunters that hunted in prime habitat reported finding more birds than expected,” Stewart says about hunting last fall. “This year, numerous wildlife biologists and landowners are reporting that the pheasant numbers are equivalent or
up a little compared to last year.”
Even though there is currently no harvest or population information available from MDNR due to the issues associated with COVID-19, Stewart believes things are lining up pretty well for pheasants and pheasant hunters this fall.
“Hunters can expect pheasant numbers to be slightly up from last year and about average compared to the past 10 years,” he notes. “While pheasant numbers are far below the historical highs from the 1950s and 1960s, pheasants are still widely distributed in southern Lower Michigan and in some areas of the Upper Peninsula.”
“Winter was mild throughout Michigan’s pheasant range and likely had a negligible impact on survival,” says Ben Beaman, PF’s coordinating wildlife biologist in Michigan. “Anecdotally, I was on several good state game areas just prior to our COVID shutdown, and numbers of crowing roosters seemed higher than last year. Also, numbers of crowing and displaying roosters were noticeably higher this spring in my home turf of southeastern Michigan, as were hen sightings.”
Stewart echoes those thoughts and says overall winter temps and precipitation totals were normal, but he reports spring started off on the cooler side before finally warming up once April arrived. He also says precipitation in March and April was normal, but May saw above-average rainfall amounts, a trend that continued into June.
“June experienced sporadic, heavy rain events, resulting in record precipitation in some areas of the state,” he says. “Wetter field conditions caused a delay in crop planting and hay harvest. This allowed pheasants to have a longer period of time with limited nest disturbance due to agricultural activities.”
BROODS AND HABITAT
“In Michigan, brood-rearing cover is the piece of the habitat puzzle that we lack the most. That said, the brood-rearing cover that we do have has been in pretty good shape thanks to early spring moisture,” Beaman explains. “The additional winter wheat stubble seems to be providing some extra brood-rearing cover, as well, and the majority of broods I’ve seen have been on the fringes of wheat fields.”
Stewart reports that pheasant nesting and brood rearing have largely been on schedule across the primary pheasant regions of the state.
“Nest timing was normal, and conditions were above average. Also, brood-rearing conditions have been good throughout the summer,” Stewart says. “There were abundant insect populations for young chicks to pursue and sufficient moisture to maintain good vegetation for cover.”
Michigan ranks in the top tier of states in the nation for wild pheasant harvest and has many properties open for public hunting. In fact, Stewart says there are numerous state game areas that are managed specifically for pheasants.
“Funding from the Wildlife Habitat Grant Program, along with a portion of hunter dollars, has provided resources to conservation organizations such as Pheasants Forever and Michigan Association of Conservation Districts to assist the DNR’s Wildlife Division with development and improvements of quality habitat and food plots for upland game birds in prominent pheasant territory,” Stewart says.
Beaman says the major agricultural areas of the Thumb, south-central and southeastern parts of the state are consistently the best areas to find pheasants, and he expects that to be the same this year based on habitat conditions. He advises hunters to keep the small picture in mind when afield this fall.
“I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again that small pockets of cover get overlooked in favor of big tracts of habitat. But these pockets often hold a rooster or two, as long as the birds have a food source nearby. Don’t overlook these spots — or do, and leave more birds for me,” Beaman jokes.
Hunters should also be aware of leased private lands that are part of the DNR’s Hunting Access Program (HAP), which currently consists of 155 properties with over 22,000 acres open to public hunting.
“Idle fields and warm-season grasses adjacent to agricultural lands are prime areas to look for pheasants,” advises Stewart. “Late-season hunters should concentrate their efforts in dense grasslands adjacent to cattails and shrub wetlands near picked corn and bean fields.”
Thumb Region — Tammy Giroux, DNR Wildlife Biologist
In the Thumb counties, we’ve seen maybe a half-dozen broods while driving or running tractor in the past couple months. I would say we’ve seen about the same number as last year, but with larger broods and larger birds. I’m guessing there has been more first-hatch success than last year.
We appeared to have an easy winter on pheasants and all wildlife. Spring and summer conditions appeared to have been favorable this year, with a mild spring without the cold, killing rains like last year. Generally, we had good brood-rearing conditions with warmer, slightly drier summer conditions, which should have been good for pheasant survival. Food and cover appear to be good throughout most of the Thumb, with a good year for crop production.
We predict that pheasant hunting will be about the same this fall as last fall.
South-Central Michigan (Gratiot, Clinton, Ingham Counties) — Chad Krumnauer, DNR Staff
I did a lot of turkey hunting up near Maple River this spring, and I heard roosters crowing pretty much anywhere I hunted. We also heard lots of roosters while turkey hunting back at my family’s farm in Tuscola County. I counted six separate roosters crowing the one morning, which is really good for our farm, where one or two is normal.
Allegan County — Mike Richardson, DNR Staff
Spring and summer nesting and brood-rearing conditions were very good at the Fennville Farm Unit. A lot of the heavy spring rains missed our area, and in places that were too wet the previous few years, we again saw broods of birds. Insect abundance was very good this summer, with a lot of grasshoppers, crickets and other insects hatching well throughout the summer. Habitat conditions were good, with most of the row crops getting planted early, and timely rains provided a much better growing season for row crops and grasses across our area.
Wild pheasants were abundant throughout the summer, and many broods were observed across the majority of the Fennville Farm Unit. I would say there are equal to or slightly greater sightings this year, compared to last. I expect the pheasant hunting this fall at Fennville to be just as good, if not better than last year.
Southeast Michigan (Jackson, Hillsdale and Washtenaw Counties) — Dennis Tison, DNR Staff
We have seen one brood and hen so far. Due to COVID-19, our time and eyes in the field have been greatly reduced. Storm damage has also kept us from working in grasslands as much as we have hoped.
We had a mild winter with no major ice storms or prolonged periods with snow on the ground, and I feel that in the area that I cover, the spring and summer nesting and brood-rearing season has been good for pheasants. We did have a late snowfall in April of about 3 inches, but it only stayed for about a day.
We did lose some habitat this year, but that was due to the agricultural fields that sat fallow last year because they were too wet to plant were being planted this year.
I feel this season will yield about the same results in my area as last year.
Southwest (Eaton County) — Mark Sargent, DNR Staff
In my area of Eaton County, I thought birds over-wintered fairly well. This spring I saw hens and roosters and heard a lot of roosters up until the end of June.
On our 50 acres I have seen two broods. The latest brood I saw was a couple of weeks ago, and the chicks were just a little bit bigger than quail, which tells me that they were either late hatching or a second brood. Based on what I have seen, I would say that bird numbers in our area are about the same as last year or slightly down.
Kalamazoo County — Randy Heinze, DNR Staff
I haven’t really seen any pheasants this year. I have also only been to the Gordan Guyer property one time this year, so I really don’t have any gauge on the condition of this year’s population.
Southwest (Van Buren, Cass, Kalamazoo Counties) — Nate DeVries, DNR Staff
Speaking primarily for the Cornish State Game Area in Van Buren County and surrounding areas, I have not seen any wild pheasants or broods this spring and summer. I also have not seen any surviving released pheasants on Cornish SGA.
However, this spring I did hear crowing roosters on several occasions at the Savage grassland on Crane Pond SGA in Cass County, so some released birds clearly survived there.
At Cornish SGA/Kinney WPA, I have seen fewer pheasants this year. Two hens were spotted last year on Kinney WPA prior to any releases. I have neither seen nor heard pheasants there this year, however.
I don’t believe the winter was particularly hard on pheasants. It was at best average. We had no major or prolonged cold spells or snow events. I believe the conditions have been average to good for pheasants from spring through today. It hasn’t been exceptionally hot or wet. This summer has been somewhat dry, but insects have been abundant and habitat conditions are good.
For this area (Van Buren and Kalamazoo counties near Cornish SGA), I would expect pheasant hunting conditions to be the same or worse than last year. With no stocking to occur on Cornish SGA, pheasant hunting opportunities will be slim on the game area this fall.
Southwest (Branch County) — Ken Kesson, DNR Wildlife Private Lands Specialist
Early on, it was pretty wet in the spring and then it turned dry, with periods of heavy rain. I haven’t noticed too much variation in vegetation quality or quantity, nor have I observed any insect impacts that I can directly correlate with weather. Given the wet spring, it may have been a little harder on chicks, but that’s speculation on my part.
I haven’t observed any hens with broods in the past two months. I’m seeing fewer pheasants, but I’m in the field less due to restrictions.
On my own farm in northeast Branch County I had a few roosters and several hens that survived into the spring. However, I haven’t seen or noticed them much after breeding season.
I think pheasant hunting will be about the same this fall. In most of my area, wild pheasants are an uncommon sight.
Saginaw Bay Area — Jeremiah Heise, DNR Staff
I have not seen much, but I cannot gauge compared to prior years due to work-from-home restrictions. I have not seen anything while I have been out completing fieldwork.
I do not think the winter was hard on pheasants in my region. It was fairly mild, and with several fields still fallow from 2019 rains that prevented crop planting, I think there was plenty of cover.
Regionally, areas were impacted severely by May rains and subsequent dam failures in Midland County, which impacted nesting and broods. Conditions were good post-flood for re-nesting. Several turkeys re-nested based on the size of some of the poults that I am seeing.
Pheasant hunting should be about the same this year as last, maybe slightly less productive than what was experienced in 2019. While food-plot planting was delayed due to work restrictions and flooding, hunters should expect conditions similar to 2019.
Montcalm County — Dan Vogl, Chapter President
I’ve seen no broods. However, many more birds were seen this spring and over the summer. We had a good winter in our area. With a good dog, the hunting will be good. You must know where birds have been seen. They are very spotty and widespread.
Clinton County — Dave Rademacher, Chapter Youth Coordinator
I saw two separate broods, one with four chicks and the other had three. I’m seeing a few more pheasants. I think the hen numbers are up.
I don’t think the winter was hard on pheasants, but I think the wet spring in 2019 was not good for broods. I’m not sure, but if the hot and dry weather continues it might impact this year’s nesting and brood rearing.
I think this fall’s hunting opportunities will be similar to last year, but I'm getting to the point I hate to shoot a bird since the numbers are down on my acres of CRP.
Thumb Region — Dave Lamb, Chapter Volunteer
I have run my dogs in four MPRI areas in the Thumb, and I put up 25 birds. The broods are small. The habitat (grasses) is starting to have a lot of weeds in them. They may need to be mowed or burned. I expect the season to be little worse than last year.
Thumb Region — Eric Deloney, Chapter Volunteer
I recently saw a hen with one large chick (then saw a large hawk — plenty of predators around). This winter was not hard, and we’ve had good weather this spring and summer. I expect hunting to be about the same as last year.
Eric Hillborg, Chapter Volunteer
The pheasant forecast is a lot like everything — very questionable. We came out of the winter with a good bird population. However, getting hammered with 7 inches of rain in a day and half mid-May wasn't good. I’ve seen four broods total so far. I watched a brood of seven to nine chicks fly out of our native prairie grass field into the neighbor’s corn this morning. They were three-quarters grown. Hopefully there are more broods around.
I’ve seen a lot of turkey poults for the first time in several years, with some newly hatched in early August. I also have some bobwhite quail around. While doing some mowing, I saw the first quail in several years. Made my day!
I was in the U.P. in mid-August, and a friend who owns a lot of ground near ours said he has seen the best numbers of young grouse in years.
IF YOU GO
The Michigan DNR, along with many conservation partners, continues to expand the Michigan Pheasant Restoration Initiative (MPRI). During the last five years, the activities associated with this initiative have expanded small-game hunting opportunities on both public and private lands, increased wildlife populations, improved hunter satisfaction and helped Michigan’s economy.
“Landowners are encouraged to get involved with the MPRI,” Stewart says. “Through this initiative, property owners can receive technical and financial assistance, plus help in forming local cooperatives to create and enhance pheasant habitat. As of 2020, 12 cooperators were actively working to expand and improve pheasant habitats. In 2019, MPRI assisted over 400 landowners to improve over 8,000 acres. Bringing back quality pheasant hunting to Michigan is one way the DNR plans to create world-class recreational opportunities with funding from hunting and trapping license sales.”
Michigan’s pheasant season is open Oct. 10-31 in the Upper Peninsula, and Oct. 20-Nov. 14 in the Lower Peninsula. The late pheasant season in part of Zone 3 will be open from Dec. 1 to Jan. 1.
The daily limit is two roosters, with a possession limit of four birds.