Photo by Jack Blueberry, Unsplash.

May 1, 2023

A Trip Back in Time

A scene of an agricultural field fallow in the winter or late fall. In the foreground is the gravel shoulder and edge of a roadway. In the background is a horizon line of trees.
The current cover on the farm. Photo by John Cole.

As a wildlife biologist, one question frequently asked is “where have all the pheasants gone? The farm I hunted several years ago was loaded with birds but this year we couldn’t find one. The cover was just the same as always, but the birds have disappeared. What happened? Could it be predators?”

William R. Edwards, a former small game research biologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey, observed that we tend to think of wildlife and their habitats in a “then and now” context: “Then we had it; now we don’t.” In many situations, habitat changes are subtle and occur at a pace that renders them indiscernible to the casual observer. Sometimes a longer view is necessary to observe changes in habitat that positively or negatively impact wildlife.

One of the few advantages of aging is the perspective one gains regarding changes in wildlife habitat over time. Please allow me to use a little personal history to illustrate. Like most youngsters, I was introduced to hunting by my father. I tagged along from the age of 7 when my dad hunted small game in southwest Kankakee County. After intense lobbying, my dad bought an old 410-gauge single shot shotgun for me. My first year of hunting was 1956 when I was 11. I harvested a couple of rabbits with the 410 but never came close to a cock pheasant. We often hunted with my uncle who suggested that I borrow his old 12-gauge single shot shotgun. So, at the age of 13, I went afield with the 12-gauge.

A brushy, weedy ditch runs through the middle of a fallow agricultural field during winter. In the background to the left are some barns and houses.
The west side of the current farm. Photo by John Cole.

The year was 1958. As always, I could hardly wait for November 11, Armistice Day, when the 20-day pheasant hunting season began at noon. Back then, opening day of pheasant season sounded like opening day of firearm deer season with the shots that echoed around the farms adjacent to us.

My dad, Uncle Forrest, cousin Jim and I hunted on a 160-acre farm near the village of Herscher. Our host was usually too busy with fall work to join us but did come along later in the season. We were just four of an estimated 236,000 hunters who pursued ring-necked pheasants in 1958. The total harvest was estimated at 897,000 birds; numbers that seem impossible at present. The 2021-2022 survey estimated 11,356 hunters harvested 45,548 wild pheasants in Illinois. A nice bump from the 2020-2021 survey, which estimate 9,785 hunters and a harvest of 38,269 wild birds, but nothing close to the ‘good old days’ of pheasant hunting.

How was this decline possible? Obviously, many changes occurred in the 60 years since 1958, primarily in agricultural land use. Pheasants thrived in agricultural landscapes until cropping systems evolved to continuous row crops. In the 1950s, corn was followed by small grains (oats or wheat) followed by one or two years of red clover or alfalfa. These changes drastically reduced available nest cover and brood foraging habitat for a variety of wildlife species. In addition, corn was harvested by the ear which left more waste grain as well as cover provided by a tall, heavy residue of corn stalks and annual weeds. In the cropping systems of the 1950s, around 36 percent of the tillable acres were planted to small grains and legumes each year.

 A farmer drives a tractor harvesting corn during the fall harvest season. In the foreground are corn husks and stalks. In the background is a field of dried golden corn plants ready for harvest.
A farmer operating a corn-picker during harvest season. Photo by Carl Wycoff, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The farm where we hunted was typical of the era. Of 160 acres, about 100 acres was corn stalks and about 55 acres was mixture of oats and red clover. In addition, a large drainage ditch formed the west boundary of the farm. Now the farm supports 80 acres of chisel-plowed corn stalks and 75 acres of chisel-plowed soybean stubble. In 1958, the drainage ditch had wide, grassy banks that provided some additional nest and escape cover for ground-nesting wildlife. Now it is almost completely covered in brushy trees and shrubs that have eliminated most of the grass cover.

Our hunt usually began on the drainage ditch at noon. Two of us would start at the north end of the ditch and two of us would start at the south end of the ditch. As we approached the midpoint, 30 to 40 pheasants would flush in a large flock. Usually, a rooster or two would be harvested while the remaining birds would scatter over the oat/clover stand and harvested corn stalks. There we would walk together, periodically flushing one or two roosters and hens at a time. At the end of the day, we had six or seven roosters, including my first rooster.

A bouquet of pheasant tail feathers in a ceramic vase sits on a wooden bench decorating a corner of a room.
Photo by John Cole.

I proudly presented some tail feathers from my first rooster to my eighth-grade teacher which she incorporated into her fall bouquet. She told the class that the feathers were “evidence of my prowess as a hunter.”

John Cole grew up in Bradley, Illinois (Kankakee County). He graduated from SIU Carbondale with BA in 1968 then served two years in the U.S. Army as medical technologist at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu. After graduating from SIU Carbondale with an MS in 1973 he began to work for the then Illinois Department of Conservation as District Wildlife Biologist, headquartered in Gibson City in east-central Illinois. In 1993, Cole became the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Ag and Grassland program manager in Springfield, working there until his retirement in 2008.

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