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Upland game in Illinois: Glimmers of hope, but key remains habitat, habitat, habitat

There are glimmers of hope as upland game seasons open Saturday in Illinois, but the key remains, as always, habitat, habitat, habitat.

Sadie and Mike Bleich share a successful moment, two seasons ago, in a field centered around habitat restoration. Credit: Dale Bowman
Sadie and Mike Bleich share a successful moment, two seasons ago, in a field centered around habitat restoration.
Dale Bowman

I get the feeling restoration of habitat for non-game projects, such as adjustments to roadside mowing and the intensive push for monarch habitat, might be lifting hunting for pheasants and quail, too.

Time will tell whether that is wistful thinking.

Pheasant, quail and rabbit seasons open Saturday in Illinois.

Some signs offer hope.

For those unacquainted with the annual surveys of pheasants, quail and rabbits, think wild censuses.

Observers monitor pheasants and quail by covering a stop/route and counting birds. There were 0.51 pheasants per stop/route this year, down 5% from 2019, but overall pheasant numbers were about the same as 2019. Quail were at 0.38 per stop/route (same as 2019) and occurring at 19% of the stops, up 11% from 2019.

Stock photo of a pheasant in the field at Kankakee River State Park. Credit: Dale Bowman
Stock photo of a pheasant in the field at Kankakee River State Park.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

Rabbits are counted by a road-kill index (since 1975), which is just what it sounds like. Considering how much I drive around the boondocks, I long have considered doing my own informal road-kill index each summer. The 2020 index was 1.83 rabbits per 1,000 miles traveled, 20% lower than in 2019. (I think that could be related to less driving during the pandemic.)

A couple of signs are good for opening weekend. The weather looks almost too nice (60s and 70s), at least for hard-working dogs. Harvest of corn (89% complete by Sunday) and soybeans (93%) will be nearly complete by opening day, a notable change from last year.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ outlook for the 2020-21 season sounds its usual note on the importance of habitat:

‘‘Focus on areas with relatively new CRP plantings or recently managed grasslands, with hay and/or small grains nearby. Within these areas, look for abundant forbs (broad-leafed, flowering plants) mixed in with scattered clumps of grasses. Hunters may find a few more roosters across Illinois this fall based on slightly higher survey numbers this summer.’’

Hints of hope come with the opener Saturday for upland game.

Habitat, habitat, habitat. Credit: Dale Bowman
Habitat, habitat, habitat.
Dale Bowman

Wild things

On Sunday, the Chicago Ornithological Society tweeted: ‘‘Birders across the @chiwilderness region are witnessing huge numbers of irruption birds like pine siskin. Grab your binoculars, fill your feeder and/or join a hike to catch a glimpse of this unique migration event!’’ . . . Multiple reports came of sandhill cranes moving Sunday.

Stray cast

When I consider Rick Renteria and Tony La Russa, creek chub and northern snakehead come to mind.