Sunday, February 5th, 2023
Sunday, February 5th, 2023

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Illinois quail hunters deal with good and bad

Springfield — For the seasoned Illinois quail hunter, annual hunting forecasts traditionally caused fever-level excitement.

But that was a long time ago.

Quail populations have been in a two-decade-old slump. Still, hunters look forward to the season, which opened Nov. 4.

Annual upland surveys in Illinois found that quail numbers this year were slightly higher than last year.

That’s the good news. The bad?

“Despite the slight increase from the survey, the Illinois quail population is still as low as it has ever been,” says Stan McTaggart, agriculture and grassland wildlife program manager for DNR.

Last year’s harvest was estimated at 36,000 wild birds, compared to annual harvests of 400,000 to 900,000 during the 1990s.

“We continue to lose habitat and connectivity between patches of habitat,” explained McTaggart. “Some landowners have been enrolling in various Conservation Reserve Program practices that can provide great quail habitat (CP4D Wildlife Habitat, CP33 Upland Bird Habitat Buffers, CP38 State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement, and CP42 Pollinator Habitat, for example). But we are not keeping pace with the loss of habitat and deterioration of habitat quality statewide.”

Throughout much of the state – with the exception of northern Illinois, which experienced heavy rains and record flooding during the summer – weather conditions were good in July and August following a wet spring and early summer.

McTaggart expects those conditions were favorable for broods as well as birds that nested or re-nested later in the summer.

McTaggart said quail hunters should focus their efforts on west-central and southeastern Illinois, both of which have strong CRP acreage and a good mix of agricultural and forestland.

Hunters should focus on areas with timbered edges and small fields with relatively new CRP practices such as CP33, CP38 and CP42, McTaggart said.

“Quality quail habitat must provide four main features,” added McTaggart. His insights comprise good advice for finding quail in Illinois … or most anywhere for that matter. Here are the four habitat features.

Quail elsewhere

According to a report by Quail Forever, weather has certainly cooperated in many places – especially the arrival of timely rains that enhanced quail habitat for nesting, brood production and escape cover. The habitat itself is there; but we still need more.

Perhaps the best sweep of quail country is going to be the Great Plains triangle of Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa, where mild winters and solid brood production have put quail numbers far above long-term averages.

Moving south, it looks like Texas’s hunt is “only” going to be about like last year – which was the best in recent memory. Oklahoma had a few issues with production, but the place still is going to produce between one and two million quail for hunters.

In the west, Colorado’s quail hunting forecast is as good as it’s been in modern times. For a winter trip, Arizona and New Mexico are going to produce birds.

The coastal states are solid, QF reported.

A look at QF’s state-by-state reports show windows of promise and hope as quail habitat work seems to be making a difference.

“And that’s the final message for everywhere in quail country: It’s all about the habitat.” QF noted in its report. “Fortunate weather conditions will only go so far in keeping quail counts as strong as they are. That’s when habitat really kicks in. Adequate nesting cover with mixed grasses and forbs are needed, as is good brood habitat, which provides plenty of bare dirt with flowering forbs that attract insects for chicks.”

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