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Pheasant hunting falls on hard times in Michigan

Urban sprawl wipes out birds' habitat

By Gene Schabath / The Detroit News

The mini-army of pheasant hunters who will take to the fields this week for the season’s opening will find less land to hunt on and a skimpy crop of ringnecks to bring home for dinner.

State game officials are predicting a phalanx of 120,000 hunters will converge on southern Michigan, a far cry from the half-million who used to plow through fields and farms decades ago when hunters from around the country came to the Wolverine state in quest of the elusive pheasant.

Some 100,000 to 110,000 pheasants will be killed statewide — mostly south of Bay City — during this year’s season, which runs through Nov. 14.

That, too, pales in comparison to the heyday of Michigan pheasant hunting, back in the 1950s and ’60s, when more than 1 million ringnecks were killed in some years.

Washtenaw County sex offenders who have been ordered to appear on Halloween and fail to show up will be charged with a probation violation, according to the judges’ order.

“The loss of habitat has been considerable,” said Al Stewart, upland bird specialist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

“When you look back at the old times when more than 1 million pheasants were killed in Macomb, Wayne, Oakland, Monroe and Lapeer counties, it doesn’t take much to see there are few farms left in these areas.”

“It’s not what is used to be,” said Jeff Owens, 35, of Marine City, who works at the state’s Great Lakes Research Station at the mouth of the Clinton River in Harrison Township. Owens has been hunting pheasants since he was 12.

“There will be some decent hunting in pockets,” said Owens, who hunts with his brother Todd, 38, of Lapeer and their Labrador retriever hunting dog, Sage.

“It started to go down a few years ago,” Owens said. “I think it was because of pesticides and the pheasant population never recovered” after pesticides were banned.

Owens also realizes that urban sprawl, and the destruction of pheasant habit, has played a major role in the bird’s decline.

A dramatic example of the loss of pheasant habitat is Macomb County’s Chesterfield Township. Chesterfield was a good spot for hunting decades ago, but subdivisions, party stores and restaurants have replaced pheasant habitat, said Lt. David Marker, the township’s acting police chief.

When Marker came to Chesterfield in 1977, he had to drive miles to buy milk, and there was only one restaurant in the community, a truck stop at 23 Mile and Gratiot. “Now we have everything,” Marker said about the proliferation of restaurants, businesses and subdivisions —- all being built where hunters used to stalk pheasants.

Another sign of the loss of prime hunting land are signs that say “No Hunting.”

Chesterfield used to be wide open to hunting, but hunting is now banned in more than half of the township. And neighboring Macomb Township, another hot spot for pheasants years ago, also is considering banning hunting with guns in its boundary lines.

Stewart, the upland bird specialist, said another statistic that underscores the pheasant decline is the emergence of new forestland in southeast Michigan.

Between 1980 and 1993, forest land increased by 40,000 acres, primarily on land that was once used for farms or was simply grassland. Grassy land is vital for pheasants.

“Trees are not good habitat for pheasants,” Stewart said. Not all of the farmland loss can be blamed on urban sprawl. Some of it is farmland that has gone fallow, resulting in the growth of forests.

“When there were farming activities, people used to graze cattle. Now people have ranchettes, little 10 acres of property, and the grassy land has turned to trees and brush,” Stewart said.

The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments also has data that dovetails with the decline of pheasants. Between 1990 and 2000, 145,000 acres of farmland, 27,000 acres of grassland and another 164,000 vacant acres were lost to development, said Jim Rogers, a data manager at SEMCOG.

“And if you look at (how land use has changed), you will see an increase in recreational land, like golf courses, and that’s not a good indicator of hunting land,” Rogers said.

Stewart said a survey conducted by U.S. postal carriers shows that the number of young pheasants seen this year in southern Michigan is equal to the number seen in 2003. Bird experts had predicted that the pheasant population would be down because a cold, wet spring resulted in the death of a lot of pheasant chicks. But the postal carrier survey proved that theory to be wrong, Stewart said.

The best hunting area will be a triangular region from Flint to Grand Rapids to Kalamazoo and back to Flint, Stewart said.

“This is where we find the core of our pheasant habitat,” Stewart said.

There is hope for pheasant hunters. The Michigan Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Agriculture Department have teamed to restore 8,200 acres of old farmland to productive pheasant habitat since 2000, said Steve Shine, program manager for the state agricultural department.

Most of the acreage is near Saginaw Bay, the River Raisin and near Holland. None is in Metro Detroit.

You can reach Gene Schabath at (586) 468-3614 or

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