Illinois Department of Natural Resources
September 2019
September 1, 2019

Upland Game Fall Hunting Forecast 2019-2020

By Wade Louis

Upland game populations in Illinois have seen a slow, steady decline for most of the last 50 years. Changes in agriculture and land use have led to less upland habitat on the landscape. Modern farms are bigger, have fewer fencerows and idle areas, and consist of primarily two crops—corn and soybeans. Rabbits, quail and pheasants thrived alongside the diverse agricultural practices of the 1950s and 60s when farms had more livestock, small grains, pasture and fencerows. During the 1970s, the shift in agricultural practices and land use accelerated and populations of upland game, and the number of hunters, began a noticeable decline that continues today.

Statewide, there is less suitable habitat available in Illinois than in years past. Localized areas of high-quality habitat can still be found across the state, but overall there are fewer areas that support good populations of upland game; providing less opportunity for hunters.

Besides the short burst of cold caused by the Artic polar vortex in late January and early February, the winter of 2018-2019 was relatively mild and winter mortality due to weather was likely low for pheasant, quail or rabbit. Spring brought above-average to record-breaking rainfall over a large portion of the state potentially impacting early nesting attempts and rabbit litters in May and early June. From late June through most of August, weather conditions improved across much of the state.

The key to a successful hunt this fall will be locating and accessing quality habitat. All three of these species require different habitats, but there is considerable overlap. All three need protected places to raise their young, escape from predators, take shelter from severe weather and find adequate food and water.         

The most limiting factor for the birds seems to be quality brood cover. This consists of areas with plenty of bare ground that chicks can move through while they hunt for insects with sturdy overhead forbs to conceal them from predators. Rabbits need brush piles or dense vegetation to escape predators and take shelter from the elements. Pheasants prefer larger grasslands with fewer trees, and quail are rarely found more than 75 yards from escape cover where they can hide from predators.

2019-20 Hunting Season Outlook

Cottontail Rabbit—Outlook ‘Fair.’ Last season, 21,714 rabbit hunters shot an estimated 86,671 rabbits. Both the number of rabbit hunters and rabbit harvest are record lows. One index of rabbit abundance is the annual roadkill survey conducted by biologists across the state during the months of June and July. The number of road-killed rabbits per 1,000 miles was 2.29, a 12 percent increase from last year.

A male bobwhite quail walking along the edge of a gravel road.
Photo by Chris Young

Northern Bobwhite Quail—Outlook ‘Poor.’ In the 2018-19 season, 5,753 wild quail hunters shot an estimated 28,395 quail. The number of wild quail harvested dropped 3 percent and continues its downward trend of reaching new historical lows. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) conducts annual bird surveys across the state to track trends for game birds and other grassland/shrubland birds. The results from this year’s surveys showed quail numbers along the routes to be slightly lower than last years by 3.1 percent.

Ring-necked Pheasant—Outlook ‘Fair.’ Last season, 11,692 hunters harvested an estimated 68,112 wild pheasants. The encouraging news is harvest increased 101 percent from last year’s numbers despite a decrease of pheasant hunters. Results from the annual bird surveys showed a 48.8 percent increase in the number of pheasants along annual bird survey routes.

Please keep in mind that the future of upland game hunting depends on the amount and quality of habitat. We encourage all landowners and hunters to take an active role in advocating for and managing upland habitat. Remember, even though these species are different, they all need four things to survive and reproduce: 1) ‘nesting’ habitat, 2) appropiate habitat to raise their young, 3) escape cover to hide from predators and inclement weather, and 4) available food and water.

It is also important to keep in mind that they need adequate escape cover and food 365 days/year. Please delay mowing during the nesting season (April through August) and leave some areas of habitat standing throughout the year. Good upland habitat looks “messy.”

More information on these species, and some management tips for each, can be found in the most recent IDNR Annual Report.

Wade Louis is the Acting Agricultural and Grassland Wildlife Program Manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Wildlife Resources.