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Upland game: The swings and misses of the status of Illinois pheasants, rabbits, quail and habitat

Wade Louis gives an update on the status of pheasants, rabbits, quail and habitat in Illinois.

Otis Kirchhoefer and his Dixie (one of my favorite dogs I have hunted with) look into the rising sun a decade ago on opening weekend of pheasant hunting in Illinois; pheasant season opens Nov. 6. Credit: Dale Bowman
Otis Kirchhoefer and his Dixie (one of my favorite dogs I have hunted with) look into the rising sun a decade ago on opening weekend of pheasant hunting in Illinois; pheasant season opens Nov. 6.
Dale Bowman

Wade Louis joked, “Maybe the rabbits are moving to the city and suburbs,” as he discussed populations.

That’s a joke, faithful readers.

Rabbit numbers are cyclical and localized. But a nugget of truth is there: Animals favor suitable areas.

Habitat, habitat, habitat.

“Thing we always say, find good habitat, you’ll find birds,” Louis said.

Louis, habitat team program manager, is acting agricultural and grassland program manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Pheasant, rabbit and quail hunting in Illinois opens Nov. 6. Statistically, upland hunting is an afterthought in Illinois compared to deer hunting, where more than 200,000 hunters (233,000 in 2020-21) venture afield annually.

I find the sociological aspects of the dramatic shift in the last half-century fascinating, but habitat related to upland game also affects pollinators and grassland birds.

Wade noted in the annual status report that in the ’60s and ’70s several times 250,000 hunters harvested more than a million ring-necked pheasants. Compare that to ’20-21 with 9,785 hunters (29% decrease from ’19-20) harvesting 28,269 wild pheasants in Illinois (up 20%).

Or that northern bobwhite quail in “the early and mid-1900s in [Illinois had] well over 150,000 hunters. Harvest was estimated at over 2 million quail per year from the 1950s through the early 1970s.” Compare that to 4,646 hunters harvesting 31,629 wild quail in ’20-21 (30% decrease from ’19-20). In a quirk, “quail per hunter/day was up 14.7% [1.15 in 2019 to 1.32 in 2020], but hunters in 2020 spent 11% fewer days afield than in 2019.”

File photo of a rabbit ready to bolt. Credit: Dale Bowman
File photo of a rabbit ready to bolt.
Dale Bowman

In ’20-21, 14,826 hunters (down 36%) harvested 67,410 rabbits (down 12%). Both numbers are record lows. But those who hunted rabbits had more success: rabbits per hunter/day increased 40%.

“I feel access is the driver for small-game hunters in Illinois,” Wade emailed. “The state is 96% privately owned. We [IDNR] do provide opportunities, but if you need to drive some distance to reach one of our sites, you are less inclined to participate.”

Again, habitat.

Wade noted, “The biggest driver in Illinois for habitat is [the Conservation Reserve Program]. Some pockets of the state are more willing to embrace CRP than others. Not sure if it is cultural or the cost/benefit is not enough for them to pull the trigger.”

That’s another sociological aspect.

In a follow-up, he explained, “CRP has been out there a long time. People who are going to do it have done it. They have to introduce a new program or change ownership. We lost [State Acres For wildlife Enhancement] acreage, but now people are more inclined to do it again.”

Funding for SAFE, a newer program, was reinstated, and Illinois landowners responded.

Next come my favorite words from the IDNR: road-kill index and call surveys.

File photo of a pheasant in the field. Credit: Dale Bowman
File photo of a pheasant in the field.
Dale Bowman

Biologists run survey routes (20 stops of three minutes to listen and watch) twice annually during breeding season for pheasants. In ’21, observers averaged 0.46 pheasants per stop (down 9.8%) with pheasants recorded at 18% of the stops, lower than in ’20. Quail routes averaged 0.41 quail per stop during the surveys (a 45% decrease from ’20) with quail recorded at 21.6% of the stops, down 38%.

The road-kill index for rabbits (what it sounds like) has been kept since 1975 (I want to do one some summer). The status report reported, “This year’s road-kill index was 20% lower than 2019 with 1.83 rabbits per 1,000 miles traveled.”

Those who live in some suburban/urban areas might find those figures hard to reconcile with what was observed in backyards this spring/summer.

I digress.

Earlier this year, many areas were reporting abnormal numbers of rabbits in the suburbs and city; but those numbers vary widely by area in the same year; this year is no exception as rabbit season opens Nov. 6. Credit: Dale Bowman
Earlier this year, many areas were reporting abnormal numbers of rabbits in the suburbs and city; but those numbers vary widely by area in the same year; this year is no exception as rabbit season opens Nov. 6.
Dale Bowman