Illinois pheasants

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Few game birds are more colorful and tasty than the male ring-necked pheasant. Its bright red head, white neck ring, brown-gold body plumage, and long tail feathers make it one of the most beautiful wild birds in Illinois. A properly cooked pheasant breast is a real taste treat, as anyone who has enjoyed one can attest. But this species is not native to the farmlands of our state. The ring-necked pheasant was brought from China to Oregon’s Willamette valley in the 1880s. The first recognized successful release of pheasants in Illinois came when a pair was released in the spring of 1890 near Macomb. Later in the fall of the same year, a flock of nearly full-grown young pheasants was seen in the same area. That is all it took to convince game managers that this splendid oriental bird would be a good fit for the prairies of Illinois.

In 1904, Illinois became the first state in the nation to open a state-operated game farm. Between 1904 and 1929, almost 37,000 pheasants were distributed to landowners throughout the state. After watching the Illinois pheasant population grow for several years, wildlife managers noticed a situation that left them scratching their heads. Pheasants in the central and northern areas of the state seemed to do quite well on their own in the wild. But for some strange reason, pheasant populations could not be sustained in the southern end of Illinois. Every time new pheasants were re-stocked in the southern regions, the birds would live a year or so in the wild, and then they seemed to disappear. It was a most puzzling dilemma. In a quest to resolve this perplexing issue, several studies were conducted, and soils throughout the state were analyzed over many years. After more than70 years of searching for definitive answers, the researchers have collectively come up empty handed. There has been much speculation, but nothing concrete has turned up that one can point to as the root cause. Is there any eager, zealous, wildlife biologist out there looking for a challenging Ph.D. topic? If so, try explaining this one to the scientific community in a credible way.

Data from the Illinois Natural History Survey shows that the pheasant population peaked in the early 1950s. During that period of time, up to 160 pheasants per square mile were recorded in the prime habitat of north-central Illinois. Such large numbers were attributed mainly to the diversity of crops farmers routinely planted. Back then, it was common to plant corn one year, then oats the next year, or some type of clover and hay mix for a few years. Historically, the top pheasant-producing counties in Illinois are Ford, Iroquois, Livingston, McLean, Carroll, and Whiteside. Some years during the 1940s and 1950s, the harvest was up to 1 million pheasants per season. Since 1998, the annual pheasant harvest has been in the 140,000 to 200,000 range. Experts point to the change in farming practices as a significant factor in this decline.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) is doing its part to bolster the pheasant population in the state by releasing about 90,000 pheasants each year at 16 IDNR-controlled pheasant hunting sites. Altogether, approximately 220,000 pheasants are released at various public and private hunting sites in Illinois each year. The hunting season for pheasants goes from Nov. 4 to Jan. 8, 2007, in the north and from Nov. 4 to Jan. 15, 2007, in the south.

This article was provided by the Illinois State Rifle Association. For more information about the association, call 635-3198 or visit

From the Nov. 22-28, 2006, issue

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