Small game isn’t a big deal anymore

Albany – For some New York hunters, small-game hunting is a big
thing.

Even so, statistics show fewer hunters take to the woods and
brushlots each year in pursuit of squirrels, rabbits and hares,
grouse, pheasants and woodcock. And many shotgun-toters are
focusing more on wild turkey in the fall.

“There’s definitely been a shifting of (attention on)_species,”
said DEC_Chief Wildlife Biologist John Major. “That’s really based
on habitat changes across much of the state.”

DEC’s own statistics show that while small-game hunting may at
one time have drawn big-time attention, that’s not necessarily the
case today.

“(Small-game) hunter numbers are down,”_Major said. “Most
hunters, if they hunt anything at all, it’s deer and turkey. But
beyond that, many of those who do hunt small-game own dogs, whether
it’s a beagle, pointer or Labrador retriever.”

Major said the decline in small-game interest was another reason
why DEC felt it was so critical to gain passage of legislation that
lowered the state’s minimum hunting age for big game from 16 to 14.
“DEC recognizes that many adults hunt deer and only deer, and if
they’re going to mentor kids it will be through deer hunting,” he
said.

DEC’s own surveys bear that out. The annual small-game hunter
survey shows the number of squirrel hunters – which remains the No.
1 small-game species – has dropped from 96,517 in 2002-03 to a low
of 68,141 in 2005-06 before seeing a resurgence last year with
94,841 hunters. Rabbit hunter numbers went from 94,241 in 2002-03
to 82,275 last season. Pheasant hunters have remained relatively
stable at around 60,000, but ringneck prospects face an uncertain
future:_the state’s lone remaining pheasant-rearing facility in
Tompkins County may be in the budget-cutting plans of the
state.

Many sportsmen cite land access challenges and what they
perceive is a lack of small game as reasons to stay home in the
fall. Predators such as coyotes, foxes, hawks and owls are also
having a huge impact on small-game numbers, they contend.

Major says predation may have some impact, but adds the
predators wouldn’t be thriving without good numbers of many
small-game species. “Predators need a lot of prey out there to
survive, and it wouldn’t be to their long-term advantage to knock
everything down,” he said. “But it really comes down to habitat
quality.”

Squirrels

The state has never had a shortage of gray squirrels, which are
the primary target of small-game hunters. They can be found
virtually everywhere in the state, and harvests have averaged
nearly 500,000 over the past five seasons, with a high of 582,033
in 2002-03 and a low of 325,530 in 2005-06. Gray squirrels are
often a young hunter’s first experience in the woods, and a lengthy
season – Sept. 1-Feb. 29 across the bulk of the state – offers
plenty of opportunities.

Rabbits

Cottontails are the second most pursued small-game animal in the
state, although many hunters claim their woodlots don’t hold many
bunnies anymore.

“It’s really more of a localized thing,” Major said. “If you can
find hedgerows and woodlots that are in the brushy stage, you
should find some rabbits. There have certainly been some good years
and some poor years, but from what I’ve seen and heard, this may be
a good year in many areas.”

With the exception of Long Island, the season kicks off Oct. 1
and runs through Feb. 29 in the Southern Zone and March 16 in the
Northern Zone.

Grouse

Hunter reports from last year indicate grouse numbers could be
on the upswing. Flushing rates have increased over the past three
seasons, and last year’s harvest was estimated at 131,637
birds.

“The good news is that down in the Southern Tier the May
rainfall wasn’t as bad as it was up north,” DEC wildlife biologist
Mike Schiavone said. “So it didn’t affect nesting success as much
as we first thought. In Albany County, we’re seeing many broods
this year, so that’s a good omen.”

The periphery areas of the Adirondacks always offers the best
grouse hunting, and beyond that locating quality grouse habitat –
young saplings, thornapples, thickets and brushy areas – is a
hunter’s key to success.

The Northern Zone grouse season opens Sept. 20 and runs through
Feb. 29, while the Southern Zone offering is also a liberal Oct.
1-Feb. 29.

Pheasants

While there is some natural reproduction occurring in areas like
the Long Island and the Lake Plains region of western New York, New
York’s pheasant hunting is largely a product of the state’s
put-and-take stocking efforts.

Mike Murphy of DEC’s Reynolds game farm in Tompkins County said
the farm has met its target of raising about 25,000 adult pheasants
for release statewide. A portion of those birds will be stocked
prior to the youth pheasant hunts, which are set for Sept. 29-30 in
the Northern Zone and much of southeastern New York and Oct. 13-14
in central and western New York.

The farm also raises nearly 60,000 day-old chicks which are
doled out to cooperators who then raise the birds for release, and
another 15,000-plus 7- to 10-week-old birds that go to cooperators
in the Young Pheasant Program.

Harvest numbers have, according to the DEC surveys, averaged
103,685 over the past five seasons – 130,082 last year.

The regular pheasant season opens Oct. 1 in the Northern Zone
and much of southeastern New York, Oct. 20 in central and western
New York and Nov. 1 on Long Island.

Woodcock

About 20,000 woodcock were taken last year by New York hunters –
an average of slightly more than one per hunter. The state has
resident birds, but hunting success is generally predicated on when
the fall migration of woodcock occurs.

“In the Southern Tier, that’s generally about the third week in
October,” Schiavone said. “But it depends on the weather, and if
the fall flights are late, it could be later – even after the
season closes (Nov. 4), which is frustrating for hunters.”

The woodcock season runs Oct. 6-Nov. 4 statewide.

Turkeys

Many hunters consider turkeys more of a big-game target, and DEC
does as well – turkey harvest statistics aren’t part of the
small-game survey.

Still, the fall hunting opportunities offered by the state’s
abundant turkey numbers are vast, and many hunters will head afield
in search of a fall hen or gobbler.

Seasons vary statewide in the fall, with opening dates of Oct. 1
and Oct. 20. Some areas have a one-bird limit, while others will
allow two birds of either sex to be taken.

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