By Scott Schaeffer, District Wildlife Biologist, IL.Dept. of Natural Resources
Have you seen a Ringneck Pheasant lately? If you have, consider yourself fortunate. The wild pheasant, once considered wildlife’s harbinger of the health of American farmland, is disappearing from much of its former range. For example, in 1963, when Illinois posted its largest recorded pheasant harvest, pheasant hunters bagged over 1.064.000 ( million) cock pheasants. In 2012, the annual harvest was projected to be less than 28,000 cock pheasants.
The capitulation can be traced to changes on our agricultural landscape. In the late 1950’s thru the 1960’s, considered by many as the “Pheasant Hey Day,” Carroll, Whiteside and the surrounding Illinois counties looked much different than they do today. Smaller farms, rich with a variety of crops such as hay and small grains, dotted the countryside. Over 9 million acres were devoted to hay and small grains in 1963, almost of one-third of the total cropland acreage. The hay was often cut late-enough for a hen pheasant to hatch a clutch of eggs. In 1963, April pheasant counts estimated over 70 hens per square mile in prime Illinois pheasant range. Even at a 40% successful hatch rate, late summer counts revealed a young pheasant recruitment of 7.7/bird per clutch, that’s over 200 pheasant per square/mi. going into the fall harvest! Creeks meandered, creating small, but numerous pockets of brushy and grassy cover. Smaller farms and more pastures means more fencerows, giving pheasants safe linkages to other farms or fields to meet their daily and seasonal needs of food and cover. Stalks left behind after harvest, were left untilled furnishing waste grain and trapping drifting snow keeping it from clogging thickets needed for winter cover and so on. Production agriculture and the pheasant were, for the most part, highly compatible.
Not so today, agriculture is a business, and producers must evolve to remain solvent. Market conditions since the 70’s, have favored row crops. Less than 100.000 acres of oats (a preferred pheasant crop) were sowed in Illinois in 2012 and about 300.000 acres of hay, primarily alfalfa. Considerably fewer acres, are devoted to pheasant friendly crops and these acres are managed far more intensively than 40 years ago. Varieties are now ready for cutting prior to the peak of pheasant hatch. Larger operations mean consolidated fields and removal of those fenclines, and hedglines. Meandering streams create “point rows” or places where large 12+ row corn planters can’t swallow. Streams are now straightened ditches that lay at the right angles for rectangular farm equipment. Agricultural technology has also moved the farming landscape into this clean, compartmentalized, highly productive yet very monotypic landscape that offers very little opportunity for pheasants and other wildlife. Today, Dept. of Natural Resource’s spring pheasant counts have moved from pheasants per square mile to square miles per pheasant.
Still, we humans like to take complex problems and simplify them. Blame is often laid on predators. But we must remember, pheasants have always lived in predator-rich environments, even when they were abundant. That said, recent studies on pheasants have shown some evidence that smaller-isolated pockets of pheasant cover ( all that remains) can attract more predators. The polygamous breeding nature of pheasants, and the fact that we can apply hunting pressure on males only, still allows for a regulated hunting season without impinging on the reproductive capabilities of the ringneck.
In summary, biologists, groups like Pheasants Forever, and many other people are concerned about the plight of the pheasant. The pheasant’s association with agriculture is so intimate that any attempt to improve the bird’s future then lies with those who work-on, regulate, and/or administer farm policies and of course, the producers themselves. Fortunately for the pheasant, most producers also want to be good stewards of the land and good soil and water conservation practices can help. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) administered by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture is currently, the pheasant’s best friend. This program provides financial incentives to remove sensitive lands from crop production and can sometimes, be seeded into pheasant-friendly vegetation. However, the program is less attractive in the face of inflated commodity prices and skyward cash-rents for cropland. Carroll County alone could lose over one-third of its 10,000 acres presently enrolled in CRP this coming September.
If you own land or know someone who does, consider finding a spot to help the pheasant. Even a little spot helps if everybody pitches-in. Pheasants Forever has an arsenal of equipment and materials to help you get started. Finally, visit your local USDA Farm Service and Soil & Water Conservation office to seek advice about farm programs helpful to the pheasant other wildlife.