Why is hunting upland birds and small game in Illinois crashing?

Chicago
By Chicago 6 Min Read

Social media and hunters illustrate one aspect of the rapid decline of hunting upland birds and small game in Illinois.

“Younger hunters want to have species that are social media worthy, nobody wants to post on Instagram or Facebook with four rabbits or four squirrels,” said Craig Miller, leader of the Human Dimensions Research Program for the Illinois Natural History Survey. “They want big bucks, a pile of ducks or geese, or a turkey.”

(Relax, I’m not starting a Rabbits of the Week feature.)

Hunting for rabbits, quail and pheasant opens today statewide in Illinois. Only a few hunters will participate, coming off a 2022-23 season with record-low harvests for rabbits and quail.

Though hunting of rabbits is at a record low in Illinois, any gardener will tell you there are plenty of rabbits around; in huntable areas is a different story. Credit: Dale Bowman

Though hunting of rabbits is at a record low in Illinois, any gardener will tell you there are plenty of rabbits around; in huntable areas is a different story.

Dale Bowman

That’s a remarkable shift from 50 years ago.

“Pheasant hunting in Illinois was very popular in the 1960’s and `70’s when 250,000 hunters harvested over a million birds per year several times,” noted Wade Louis, habitat team program manager and acting agricultural and grassland program manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, in his annual status report on pheasants.

Now deer seasons are king with more than 200,000 hunters. Turkey hunting and waterfowl hunting also remain strong.

The change came rapidly. When I started this column more than 25 years ago, orange-emblazoned hunters splashed color across fields and fencerows on opening day. Country hotels filled. Major beer companies made “Welcome hunters” banners for taverns. Fire halls and churches held fundraising meals on opening day.

Last year on opening day, when I drove Route 45 south through prime pheasant country (Iroquois and Champaign counties) for Dad’s Weekend at the University of Illinois, I didn’t see a hunter.

That observation fits the numbers. Louis’ annual summary of pheasant hunting for the `22-23 season estimated only 10,196 hunters (10% decrease from `21-22) and only 37,580 wild pheasants harvested (17.5% decrease from 21-22). That’s a tiny fraction of the numbers Louis mentioned from 50 years ago.

Rabbits had a record-low harvest of 47,194 (25% decrease from `21-22) with only 16,314 hunters (9.5% decrease from `21-22). Quail had a record-low harvest of 11,653 wild quail (60% decrease from `21-22) and quail hunters were estimated at only 5,431 (3.4% decrease from `21-22).

Bourbon Glazed Quail in “Braising the Wild.” Credit: Jack Hennessy

Bourbon Glazed Quail in “Braising the Wild.” (One of the joys of hunting quail is eating them.

Jack Hennessy

Obviously, habitat loss is one reason. You don’t have to be a farmer to notice suburban sprawl and industrial-strength corn and soybeans replaced many small farms, which had fencerows, pastures, wood lots and varied crops.

On Wednesday, I had a Zoom meeting with Miller and Dan Stephens, director of the Illinois Learn to Hunt program.

“Access does not equal opportunity,” Stephens noted.

For example, at the few public sites where rabbit hunting is allowed in northeast Illinois, it is allowed only four percent of the season. Deer hunting is king.

Squirrel hunting, which opens Aug. 1, is closed on nearly all nearby sites during deer seasons that stretch from October 1 to mid-January. Rabbit and squirrel seasons run through Feb. 15.

Small-game hunting is not promoted by the IDNR for the youth. By contrast, the IDNR has significant youth hunts for deer, turkey and waterfowl.

Throw in the constraints of modern family life.

“In these days, there are so many competing activities,” Stephens noted. “Every stage of the game there are constraints.”

Some constraints on hunting public land come from the IDNR itself. One of the worst is the windshield-card program (a requirement at many sites to have a windshield card—you must print—on your vehicle, then a final harvest report is required by Feb. 15 or you lose right to hunt that site the following season.) To show the absurdity of this, anglers, bicyclists, birders, cavorting lovebirds, hikers, picnickers or walkers do not have a similar restriction.

“I don’t see it changing,” Miller said.

For this season, there’s some hope.

“Gray squirrel and fox squirrels, the populations are there, if you can find a place to hunt,” Miller said.

The year’s road-kill index was 12% higher than in 2022 with 1.76 rabbits per 1,000 miles traveled. (Some year, I’m going to do my own road-kill count during my travels in the outdoors.) Observers recorded an average of 0.21 quail per stop during surveys (3.2% decrease from `22). Observers recorded nearly as many pheasants per stop, an average of 0.49 (down 1.6%) as last year.

Pheasant habitat, seeded with Pheasant Forever’s Pollnator Plus mix, benefits many species. Credit: Dale Bowman

Pheasant habitat, seeded with Pheasant Forever’s Pollnator Plus mix, benefits many species.

Dale Bowman

Advertisements
Share This Article

It was Thursday night when we started to negotiate. Do we need to evacuate to the south or

It was Thursday night when we started to negotiate. Do we need

By Chicago

“Please go to a safer place. Your lives matter more than the news.” This is what a news a

“Please go to a safer place. Your lives matter more than the

By Chicago

“Botched” star @drdubrow took some time away from #BravoCon to fill us in on some of the h

“Botched” star @drdubrow took some time away from #BravoCon to fill us

By Chicago