Pheasant numbers are mostly looking good in Michigan, and where there’s good upland habitat there will be birds to hunt
By Andrew Johnson
“Michigan pheasant hunters found wild pheasants where you’d expect them last year — areas in southern counties with substantial grasslands in agricultural landscapes with little or no woodlands.” says Bill Vander Zouwen, Pheasants Forever’s regional rep in Michigan. “Some hunters reported good hunting, while others found fewer birds than in the past. Pheasant distribution is spotty in this state, which has a high amount of woodland acreage and limited grasslands.”
WEATHER CONDITIONS AND BROODS
“State biologists, landowners and Pheasants Forever chapter volunteers across southern Michigan were polled to get their impressions of the impacts of winter weather and spring weather on pheasant populations,” continues Vander Zouwen. “Most noted that we had some substantial snowfalls, but also enough warm weather and melting that allowed pheasants to come through the winter in pretty good shape.”
Vander Zouwen says Michigan, much like most of the Midwest, had a very wet spring that delayed the planting of crops until much later than normal.
“Some fields did not get planted,” he reports. “While the rains likely flooded out many early nesting attempts, they stopped in time to allow for late nests and good brood-rearing conditions.”
Brood-rearing conditions were a real bright spot for pheasant production this year, according to anecdotal observations by Ben Beaman, Pheasants Forever coordinating wildlife biologist for Michigan.
“Record-breaking unplanted acres from the unseasonably wet spring came up weedy with lots of bare ground under the canopy — perfect conditions for brood-rearing,” Beaman says. “I began to worry that nesting had been a wash this year when I wasn’t seeing broods by mid-July. But, I was reassured around the last week of July when farmers started spraying and mowing these unplanted fields and I simultaneously started seeing hens and broods on the roadsides. Even more reassuring was that most of the broods I saw were large, both in the numbers of chicks and their body sizes. This seems to suggest that hens were relying heavily on these fallow fields for brood rearing and didn’t begin using ditches and roadsides regularly until the fallow fields started being prepped for planting.”
While the bonus habitat provided by unplanted fields were a boon for pheasants this year, Beaman says it’s not enough to stem the tide of habitat loss.
“Like so much of the pheasant range, Michigan is losing habitat at an alarming rate,” he says. “Some relief is on its way with Michigan’s new 40,000-acre CRP SAFE program, but it will be a few more years before those acres develop into productive habitat. That said, the wet spring has existing habitat in great shape going into the fall.”
TOP SPOTS AND EXPECTATIONS
“The best areas of the state include the ‘thumb’ and southeast counties, where there are fewer woodlands and more fields enrolled in Farm Bill conservation programs,” Vander Zouwen reports. “Pockets of pheasants can also be found in other south-central Michigan counties. Some pheasants can be found on public grasslands in these areas, but the best numbers will be found on private lands that receive less hunting pressure.”
All things considered, Vander Zouwen expects that hunters will find pheasant numbers comparable to last year. Beaman is a bit more optimistic, saying he hopes that the gains in habitat can offset the losses from the wet spring.
“Based on my observations for the area I live and hunt in the southeastern part of Michigan’s lower peninsula, I’m expecting to see a few more roosters this fall,” Beaman explains. “I’ve heard mixed reviews from DNR staff and PF volunteers around the state, but the majority believe numbers are comparable or slightly up from last year.
“Pheasants thrive in pockets of suitable habitat throughout the lower peninsula, but the traditional best areas are the heavily agricultural, relatively forestless portions of the state, such as the thumb, central lower peninsula, and southeast lower peninsula,” he says. “For public land, focus on properties where Pheasants Forever and the Michigan Pheasant Restoration Initiative have focused grassland restoration efforts to boost wild pheasant numbers.”
Beaman highlights the Verona SGA (Huron County), Maple River SGA (Gratiot, Clinton and Ionia counties), Sharonville SGA (Jackson and Washtenaw counties), Lake Hudson SRA (Lenawee County), and the Fennville Farm Unit of Allegan SGA (Allegan County) as public opportunities he’d recommend to pheasant hunters this fall.
Fennville Farm Unit (Allegan County), Mike Richardson, DNR Staff
• Numbers are roughly the same as last year.
• Many broods have been seen this year — five to eight broods in a day at times.
• I've seen broods ranging from five to 14 chicks, with most being around nine or 10.
• This past winter was rather mild for the most part.
• Spring was very wet, and cool and severely wet conditions may have impacted nesting in low-lying areas such as the southern portion of the Fennville Farm Unit where fewer and smaller broods were seen this past spring.
• Summer conditions were favorable for growth of cover and insects for chicks. As the ground dried out during the summer, there was still a lot of moisture in the ground from a high water table and grasses and forbs grew well.
Branch County, Eric Hillborg, Chapter Volunteer
• Winter didn't affect the birds much if they had good habitat. We entered the spring with a good survival rate on our property and had reports from other landowners of seeing birds.
• The spring rains did hurt our birds. Many marginal areas of habitat were flooded out.
• I saw several broods of chicks in July. Brood numbers were down, with some hens having only two or three chicks. Also. there was a large age difference in broods.
Shiawassee SGA (Saginaw County), Jeremiah Heise, DNR Staff
• Numbers compared to last year are slightly up, maybe 5-10 percent.
• Broods seen and sizes: Three broods total, with between four and seven chicks.
• The winter was somewhat longer than normal with the most snow since the winter of 2013-2014, but I think standing crops allowed pheasants to fare fine. Deeper snow possibly made them less vulnerable to predators.
• While the spring was wet, I think the thousands of acres of fallow ag fields really paid dividends to nesting and brood rearing. While not ideal habitat, hens could nest and rear young in these areas and not be pushed into more marginal habitat/predator corridors.
Maple River SGA (Gratiot County), Chad Krumnauer, DNR Staff
• At Maple River I know of at least three different broods that the Wildlife Assistant, Todd Bashore, has seen while he was mowing the fire breaks.
• I am sure the wet spring and summer probably hurt nesting success in some areas.
• I don’t think the winter was that terrible for the birds this year.
• As for the crowing surveys we did in May, they were all pretty much average with what we normally hear.
Tuscola County, Tom Lounsbury, Landowner
• During their first nesting attempts, I believe hens got hit hard with unbelievable cold and rains from near the end of May until almost early July. I couldn't get my food plots in until near the end of June due to wet clay here.
• It is hard for me to estimate brood sizes on my property, but I've been seeing a lot of pheasants that are just a bit bigger than barn pigeons right now. Not that long ago, they were the size of quail.
Montcalm County, Dan Vogl, Chapter Volunteer
• We seemed to have more birds in our area this spring, as I would see birds on almost every trip around the area back roads.
• I have seen more broods this summer than in years past. Many chapter members have told me the same thing. Most are in pockets spread out over the area.
Thumb, Dave Lamb, Chapter Volunteer
• I have flushed 105 birds so far. Most of them were young, and all were on MPRI areas.
• Haven’t hit all my spots yet, but numbers appear the same.
Jackson/Washtenaw Counties, Bill Steere, Chapter Volunteer
• I’ve had lots of field time since mid-July, and the numbers of birds are the same or possibly less.
• No broods or even individual chicks (first time in many, many years) so far.
• Winter didn't seem that bad, but not easy, either.
• Crowing counts in Sharonville were pretty much the same as the previous two years. Here in Jackson we had some rain and chilly weather just when it seemed the worst possible time, and, in general, we got wet every few days.
• I'm not expecting any improvement in pheasant population this year.
Lenawee County and Beyond, Ben Beaman, PF Staff
• This spring I saw and heard more roosters near my home in northeast Lenawee County and my family’s property in western Hillsdale County than I did last year.
• I didn’t see any broods until the last week of July. But I’ve seen several since, and all were of good size.
• Winter was mild in my area, and the high number of spring roosters seems to indicate winter mortality was low.
• The wet spring probably caused some level of nest failure, but I expect those losses to be offset by the awesome nesting cover that remained on the landscape well past peak-hatch.
• Grass hay and alfalfa in my area were largely untouched from May through late June, which should have allowed more nests to hatch out compared to more typical years. Additionally, large numbers of unplanted, weedy fields have provided top-notch brood-rearing cover, which is likely why it took so long for me to come across my first brood. Many of those fields are currently being tilled and planted to cover crops, which I expect will concentrate birds in areas of remaining cover. Numbers should be very good in suitable habitat by the time Oct. 20 rolls around, at least in my area.
• As for public land, I saw or heard birds at every MPRI property I visited this spring, which included Sharonville SGA, Lake Hudson SRA, Cornish SGA, Allegan SGA, Maple River SGA, St. John’s Marsh SGA, and St. Clair Flats SWA (Harsens Island).
Gratiot County, Dan Andrews, Chapter Volunteer
• Got all kinds of birds on my places, and I’ve seen eight different broods, all with eight to 12 chicks.
Sanilac County, Clay Ottoni, Chapter Volunteer
• I’ve seen more birds and broods this year.
• Spring was a bit too wet, but better field practices helped get habitat in and going, which helped the vegetative growth and increased insect numbers.
Genesee County, Jay Blair, Chapter Volunteer
• About all I can say is that people who have talked to me indicate there are more pheasants than in the past. A landowner in the Fenton Area and one of his nearby friends have been sending me photos of pheasants all summer. He and his friend have put in food plots, nesting cover and switch grass, and they are being rewarded with a good outcome.
• Hen pheasants outnumber roosters, which is even a better sign.
Mark Sargent, DNR Biologist
• I thought I saw about the same number of birds this spring and similar numbers of roosters crowing as last year.
• Over the last month I feel that I have seen fewer broods, and what broods I have seen have fewer chicks.
• In my opinion, I think the winter was not hard on our birds, but the spring weather decreased reproduction and chick survival.
• On the other hand, I have talked to several Eaton County individuals who have seen birds in areas where they have not seen birds in a while.
IF YOU GO
Many government and conservation organization partners are working together to improve and increase habitat on both public and private land through the Michigan Pheasant Restoration Initiative. Check here
for more information or “like” Michigan Pheasants Forever on Facebook.
Michigan’s pheasant season is broken into three zones:
• Zone 1: October 10-31
• Zone 2, 3: October 20 to November 14
• Zone 3 (partial): December 1 to Jan. 1
The limit is 2 birds daily, with a possession of 4.