October 4, 2011
MADISON -- The excitement of upland bird hunting - which combines the joy of going afield with a beloved hunting companion, otherwise known as your dog, and the heart-stopping thrill of flushing game birds - begins for many on Oct. 15.
Opportunities for upland bird hunting exist all across the state, but a changing landscape has led to declines in both numbers of birds and the numbers of hunters who pursue them.
"We still have a significant number of pheasant hunters in the state," said Scott Walter of the state Department of Natural Resources, an upland wildlife ecologist. "But in general, across the board, we are seeing a decline in upland game bird hunter numbers."
Much of this can be attributed to loss of habitat.
Pheasants raised on game farms supply most of the upland bird hunting action in Wisconsin. Efforts to expand the number of wild pheasants on the landscape have been hindered by two long winters and by market forces. The federal Conservation Reserve Program was a boon to wildlife in that it paid farmers to take land out of production, but as the price of corn and beans have increased dramatically, almost half the CRP acres in Wisconsin have been pulled from the program in favor of crops.
The pheasant season runs statewide from Oct. 15 to Dec. 31.
Only ruffed grouse hunters have gotten good news lately as populations have risen for several years in a row, approaching or reaching the apex of a 10-year cycle of growth and decline.
These birds depend on the dense new growth of new forests, and the need for pulp wood in Wisconsin has resulted in adequate habitat for these birds to maintain decent populations.
Grouse hunting is divided into zone A, which covers most of the state, and zone B, which covers a slice of eastern and southeastern Wisconsin running from Appleton and Green Bay in the north and running south to the Illinois border with the western edge defined by highways 41, 26, 151 and 90.
The season in zone A opened Sept. 17 and continues through Jan. 31. In Zone B, the season runs from Oct. 15 through Dec. 8.
Sharp-tailed grouse, one of four species of grouse native to Wisconsin, were once hunted across the state, but in recent times, their have been just two zones with enough birds to sustain a hunt, and one of these will be closed this year. Only in deer management unit 2, located in far northwest Wisconsin, will hunters be allowed to pursue this bird.
These grouse do best on open landscapes with patches of brush, most notably barrens, but these depend on frequent disturbance, whether through fire or cutting, and so many have been overtaken by dense growth.
"It's hard to maintain barrens," Walter said. "It takes intensive management, such as we have at the Namekagon Barrens or Crex Meadows."
Sharp-tailed grouse, like the prairie chicken, is a "lekking species." A lek is a display ground where males concentrate during the spring mating season and engage in a highly ritualized display of dancing and displays of plumage to attract females.
"They exhibit very dynamic, ostentations and colorful behaviors," Walter said.
The short season for sharp-tailed grouse begins Oct. 15 and ends Nov. 6. Walter said when numbers are up, or in western states with large populations, sharp-tailed grouse hunting can be thrilling.
"You often find them in groups," he said, "so once you get into them, the action can be exciting."
Other game birds in Wisconsin include the woodcock, hunted Sept. 24 to Nov. 7; the mourning dove, Sept. 1 to Nov. 9; and the crow, with a fall season that runs Sept. 17 through Nov. 17. The crow season opens again on Jan. 18 and runs through March 20.
Bobwhite quail, a native species, and Hungarian partridge, a non-native species brought here long ago, are two species that have been in long-term decline. The quail, which is perhaps a third the size of the more numerous ruffed grouse, are adapted to small-scale agriculture in an age when small farms are giving way to large operations.
"Quail tend to hang in coveys, so it is common, when you find them, to get multiple flushes," Walter said.
But the tradition of hunting quail, and Hungarian partridge, has faded in Wisconsin.
"Some are harvested each year," Walter said, "but usually it is incidental to some other form of hunting."
The seasons for quail and partridge open Oct. 15 and close Dec. 7 for quail and Dec. 31 for partridge.
FOR MORE INFORMATION, CONTACT: Scott Walter, Upland Wildlife Ecologist, at (608) 267-7861 or Sharon Fandel, Assistant Upland Wildlife Ecologist, at (608) 261-8458