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Pheasant hunting still a success

Rate equal to past seasons
October 14, 2004


The pheasant season opens Oct. 20 in the Lower Peninsula, and about 100,00 hunters will kill about 130,000 roosters before it closes Nov. 14. That's a far cry from the glory days of 40 years ago, when more than 500,000 hunters killed more than a million birds and the pheasant opener was a bigger event than the first opening of the deer season.

Yet experts say that despite huge habitat losses that have reduced the numbers and range of the big, colorful game birds in Michigan, hunters who have access to good habitat will kill pheasants at about the same rate their fathers and grandfathers did in the 1950s and 60s.

"A lot of people don't believe it, but hunter success is about the same as it has always been because the people who hunt pheasants today mostly have access to good habitat," said Al Stewart, the Department of Natural Resources upland game bird specialist. "The pheasant harvest per hunter-day is about the same as it was in 1954."

Stewart said the most dramatic change is in the decreased number of hunters, largely a product of the tremendous reduction in good pheasant habitat and access to it.

"Back in the 1950s and 1960s, there was lots of pheasant habitat out there and lots of access to it," Steward said. "The big changes were the loss of farmland to urbanization and changes in agricultural practices.

"In 1957, in the middle of the banner years, the counties that were considered the best pheasant habitat were Monroe, Oakland, Wayne, St. Clair, Huron, Tuscola and Bay. The counties we consider the best pheasant areas now, places like Jackson and Kent and Kalamazoo, were listed as fair to poor."

In the ensuing half-century, much of that prime pheasant land disappeared under suburban housing developments, office complexes, roads and parking lots. "Asphalt doesn't produce pheasants well, and that's what we have today," Stewart said.

He pointed out another change that decreases pheasant populations -- the loss of farm acreage and subsequent increase in wooded area.

"In Southeast Michigan, forest cover increased by 40,000 acres from 1980 to 1993," Stewart said. "And that's the kind of change that's harder for people to notice. If you're from Montana and you only go back every 10 years, you might say, 'Holy cow, when did the woods grow up?' But if you live in an area and first see trees when they are five feet tall and watch them over 10 years, you aren't really aware of the change."

Those changes resulted in tougher living conditions for pheasants but far better conditions for deer, and "in 1963, Michigan had its first year when hunters killed more deer than pheasants," Stewart said. That trend continues today, with hunters taking about 500,000 deer per year, four times as many deer as pheasants.

In addition to the 26-day regular season, a special pheasant season is offered Dec. 1-Jan. 1 in much of the southern Lower Peninsula. The Upper Peninsula season opened Oct. 10 and runs through Oct. 31, but it is limited to an area in the southwestern UP.

There are more than 40 varieties of pheasants, which are native to Asia. Many were spread throughout Europe by the Romans, and they flourished in Great Britain as popular game and decorative birds on the estates of noblemen.

Pheasants were brought to the United States in colonial times, but they didn't establish a viable wild population until Judge O. N. Denny, the U. S. consul general in Shanghai, China, sent 100 pairs home to his ranch in the Willamette Valley of Oregon in 1881. The habitat was perfect, and the birds exploded in numbers. In 1892, hunters killed 50,000 roosters during Oregon's first official pheasant season.

Denny's success was the impetus for dozens of other states to begin planting pheasants. Michigan opened its first pheasant farm in 1917.

During World War II, hunting pressure throughout the country was decreased dramatically. After the war Michigan was home to millions of ringneck pheasants, bred in the wild as well as raised and planted by a DNR farm and private groups. Raising and releasing pheasants was even a project for children who belonged to the Four-H organization.

Those birds found ideal living conditions. Farms were small and mostly chopped up into 10- to 30-acre fields with mixed grain crops that pheasants like to eat, fallow areas that produced huge numbers of seeds and insects, lots of hedgerows where pheasants could hide from predators while moving from roosting cover to food, and thousands of small wetlands that were left in place because the farm machinery available and economic incentives weren't powerful enough to drain them.

Today's farms are much larger and tend to concentrate on one crop, which reduces the variety of insects that young pheasants depend on almost exclusively in their first five weeks of life. Today's farmers also make much greater use of insecticides than their grandfathers, and economic pressure goaded them to rip out hedgerows, plow into ditches and drain tiny marshes and swales.

Ironically, pheasants in the 21st century are being aided by the reversal of a 20th century phenomenon that resulted in their decline -- the fracturing of farmlands.

"A lot of people out there now are buying 20, 30, 40 acre plots that they run as hobby farms," Stewart said. "That's helping, because most of them want wildlife on their farms, and the word is out that they can get a lot of free assistance from the state and federal governments to help them establish populations of pheasants and other species.

"A lot of the best pheasant hunting today is on old farmland that was allowed to revert to brush and woods and is being brought back as pheasant habitat."

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