Saturday, January 28th, 2023
Saturday, January 28th, 2023

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Hunters prepared for birds, rabbits

Springfield —  If only on the surface, DNR’s move last year to extend the state’s rabbit season into February appears to have had the anticipated effect.

Newly released figures show that participation was up 12 percent, while the cottontail harvest rose an impressive 22 percent.
Quail and pheasant seasons did not follow suit, as hunter effort and harvests continued to decline.

With the Nov. 1 opener fast approaching, the refreshing rabbit results provide a shot of encouraging news – even if that news comes with a giant caveat.

“The 2013-14 numbers are not directly comparable to previous years, since we extended the season until the middle of February, providing at least a month of extra opportunity,” said Stan McTaggart, DNR’s program manager for agriculture and grasslands. “These numbers are low compared to the annual harvest and number of hunters over the last 20 years.”

An estimated 37,066 hunters harvested 142,401 rabbits last season, meaning the average was 0.73 rabbits per trip. Compared to the previous season, the rabbits-per-trip dropped a full 5 percent.

What should cottontail chasers expect for the 2014-15 season? Statewide trends show that rabbit numbers may be down slightly, but McTaggart is convinced that areas with good habitat should hold plenty of rabbits.

DNR’s spring and summer road-kill index tells an over-arching story of the state’s rabbit population. This year’s count was 2.03 rabbits per 1,000 miles traveled, an 8 percent drop from the 2013 index.

The drop continues a gradual decline. Until the late 1980s, the index regularly featured more than four rabbits per 1,000 miles.

In the mid-1970s, the count exceeded eight rabbits (see chart on this page).

Quail harvest increased

According to DNR’s report on last season, the number of quail hunters decreased by 4 percent. However, the state quail harvest increased by 9 percent.

An estimated 10,779 hunters shot 51,628 quail, with the average set at 0.72 quail per hunting day.

“Harvest and effort were low in 2013-14 compared to the last 30 years that saw harvest exceed 900,000 birds in the early 1990s with over 85,000 quail hunters,” McTaggart noted. “The primary limiting factor in low quail populations is a lack of quality habitat.”

Quail and pheasant surveys are conducted on established routes by  biologists across the state. They drive each route and make 20 stops for three minutes each to record individual birds from a list of species. There are 76 routes statewide, and two surveys are completed on each route, one during the peak breeding window for pheasants (May 10 – June 10) and the second during the peak for bobwhites (June 10 – July 10.)

This summer, observers recorded an average of 0.55 quail per route, a drop of 24 percent from last year. Quail were recorded at 27 percent of the stops, a 21 percent decline.

Yet, there is some good news.

McTaggart reported that, despite a severe winter weather, “conditions during the nesting season were much closer to average than what we have seen for the last several years.”

“Overall, 2014 weather conditions for nesting and brood rearing were an improvement over the last several years,” he said. “The key to a successful 2014-15 quail season is finding high-quality habitat.”

Pheasant counts up

 Last season, an estimated 14,940 hunters (14 percent decrease) harvested 20,613 wild pheasants (30 percent decrease). Hunters averaged 0.33 pheasants per day.

“Harvest in 2013-14 was low compared to the 1990s which often exceeded 200,000,” McTaggart said.

Using the aforementioned quail and pheasant survey routes, observers recorded an average of 0.32 pheasants per route this summer, an 8 percent increase.  Pheasants were recorded at 18 percent of the stops, up 7 percent from the 2013 survey.

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