Upland Game Fall Hunting Forecast 2021-2022
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 pheasant 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, fewer areas exist that support good populations of upland game. In turn, this provides less opportunity for hunters.
The winter of 2020-2021 was relatively mild and winter mortality due to weather was likely low for pheasant and rabbit. A two-week cold snap in late January/February brought ice, snow and below normal temperatures for quail in the southern part of the state. These conditions likely contributed to an above normal mortality event for quail in these areas. Spring brought average (northern and central Illinois) to normal (southern Illinois) rainfall over a large portion of the state. Above normal June-August rain fall totals in the central portions of the state potentially impacted second nesting attempts and rabbit litters. From late June through most of July, 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, 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, allowing chicks to move while hunting for insects, as well as possessing sturdy overhead forbs to conceal chicks from predators. Rabbits need brush piles or dense vegetation to escape predators and take shelter from the elements. Pheasant prefer larger grasslands with fewer trees. Quail are rarely found more than 75 yards from escape cover where they can hide from predators.
2021-22 Hunting Season Outlook
Cottontail Rabbit—Outlook ‘Fair.’ The estimated number of rabbit hunters in 2020-2021 (23,258) was down 36 percent from the previous year with a total harvest of 67,410 rabbits (down 12 percent). The number of rabbits per hunter/day increased 41 percent. 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. This year’s index was unchanged from last years.
Northern Bobwhite Quail—Outlook ‘Poor.’ The 2020-2021 quail survey estimated 4,646 hunters (down 31 percent) harvested 31,629 wild quail (30 percent decrease) compared to 6,749 hunters and 45,270 quail in the 2019-2020 survey. Harvest declined in 2020 after a two-year increase in 2019 and 2018. Despite the decrease in total harvest, the number of quail per hunter/day was up 15 percent. 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 of these surveys showed a large decrease in quail abundance (38 percent) statewide.
Ring-necked Pheasant—Outlook ‘Fair.’ The 2020-2021 survey estimated that 9,785 hunters (29 percent decrease) shot 28,269 wild pheasants in Illinois (20 percent increase), compared to the 2019-2020 totals of 13,706 hunters and 23,570 wild birds. IDNR annual bird surveys showed a 12 percent decrease in pheasant abundance across the pheasant range.
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.
Many landowners tend to plant food plots where they are not needed, such as along grain fields. Permanent habitat provides many food sources for wildlife and can meet many of their other needs. 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.
Details on the hunting seasons, hours, zone lines, daily/possession limits and more can be found in the Upland Game section of the 2020-2021 Illinois Digest of Hunting and Trapping Regulations.
Wade Louis is the acting Agricultural and Grassland Wildlife Program Manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Wildlife Resources.