November 1, 2022
Photo courtesy of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Upland Game Fall Hunting Forecast 2022-2023

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By Wade Louis
Two adult male ring-necked pheasants with red faces and white bands around their necks face-off in a fall prairie surrounded by tan grasses and vegetation.
Photo courtesy of Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

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.

The winter of 2021-2022 was relatively mild and winter mortality due to weather was likely low for upland game. Spring brought above average rainfall over a large portion of the state, possibly impacting nests in low lying areas and along watercourses. From, June through August, weather conditions improved across much of the state which should contribute above normal brood survival.

 A brown and tan cotton-tail rabbit sits at the edge of a grassland. Short mowed grass is in the foreground and tall grasses are in the background.
Photo by Uros Marjanovic.

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, place to 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. Pheasant prefer larger grasslands with fewer trees, and 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.’ Last year’s harvest numbers were unavailable at the time of this report. 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 6 percent lower than last year.

Northern Bobwhite Quail—Outlook ‘Poor.’ Last year’s harvest numbers were unavailable at the time of this report. 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 an increase in quail abundance (10 percent) statewide.

Ring-necked Pheasant—Outlook ‘Fair.’ Last year’s harvest numbers were unavailable at the time of this report. IDNR annual bird surveys showed an increase (8.7 percent) in pheasant abundance across the pheasant range.

Sunlight sweeps over a fall prairie at sunset. At the horizon is a line of trees against a clear blue sky.
Photo by Sarah Marjanovic.

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.”

A graphic featuring a photo of a brown, white, and black small bird walking along a gravel road with green vegetation in the background. To the left of the bird is text explaining that more information on upland game species in Illinois can be found in the most recent IDNR Annual Report.
Photo courtesy of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

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

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