CASS CITY – Can the pheasant’s habitat be too good for hunters? Not for the birds, but for the guys who hunt them?
We were debating the issue at lunch break on opening day here in the Thumb. We emptied a large number of birds – Tom Lounsbury, the host of this annual event and the official flush meter, said he had lost track, there were so many – but we only killed three. And we haven’t missed that many.
Lounsbury is convinced that the habitat can be too good.
âI shot a lot more birds when the habitat was more marginal,â said the 70-year-old retiree. âWith this solid blanket block, I think we’ve genetically engineered them to work like hell. They don’t last long for a point. It’s definitely a different bird than the one we hunted 20 years ago.
âYou kill more birds when you have cover bands rather than solid blocks,â he continued. âThey are circling around us in this thick steep. We have fewer birds now and we are working harder for them.
The guy might be right. We moved a lot of birds that were coming up in front of us well out of the range.
Now I know it sounds a little crazy that the habitat can be too good. And I know when I went to South Dakota every year we killed a lot of birds in some of the most beautiful prairies you’ve ever seen – thick, tall, lush grass.
But the percentage of birds killed by hunting was probably much lower than it is here. I remember the days when we would rush 50 or 100 birds out west to get our three per hunter and sometimes we just didn’t go over our limits. But it wasn’t usually for lack of birds. It was more often because the birds got up wild.
You can walk through a field and watch the birds rise, 50 to 100 meters in front of you, in waves. But every once in a while you would come across a bird that didn’t follow the flock, that got up at your feet, and that’s the bird you killed.
Lounsbury has been working on his habitat for just over 20 years, when he took over the family farm after his parents passed away.
âIn fact, my mom was still alive when I convinced her to put on the filter strips – we put this 100 foot buffer along the ditch. And we needed it because the farmers wouldn’t turn the plow furrow until it reached the very edge of the ditch. They plowed and planted every square inch.
Lounsbury, who owns three fields – measuring nearly 100 acres in total – said they were all in production before taking over. He worked on them gradually, improved them, enrolled in government set-aside programs when they were available (they were not always available) and established food plots.
And it’s not just the grass that he improved.
âI planted evergreen windbreaks on the outer edges – I think it’s important for the birds to winter, forming a windbreak,â Lounsbury said. âIf you have an ice storm, they use these evergreens for cover, especially those with branches down to the ground. It is very important to protect pheasants from the elements.
What intrigued me the most was the way we killed the birds.
Only one of the three we killed – a late-hatched rooster, you can tell by its size and coloring – was actually shot by a hunter (Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Jason Myers) from the traditional way: stand up in front of you.
Two were taken as incoming shots at birds which were flushed out by hunters or dogs across the field (we were well dispersed).
I set one up with my smuggler in a windbreak that I couldn’t shoot at, but a buddy of mine was killed as he was walking back across the field 100 yards away.
And I know a lot of birds have let us down. My ferryman, Elvis, rode a rooster that I bet he pointed 15 times; he was pointing, I was going forward, he was moving eight or 10 yards and pointing again, and it would go on and on for, I bet, a quarter mile. I would have loved to see it all on a GPS collar with a tracker; it was back and forth, around and around – it would have looked like what you would get if you let go of an overly hyperactive 6 year old with a felt tip pen and a roll of industrial sized butcher paper.
And yet, the bird rose out of reach, however, if this is any consolation, it was a veteran bird.
âHe had a tail like that,â said Tom’s son Joe, who held his arms as wide as possible.
The elder Lounsbury said he had always known that some fleeing birds avoided hunters, but didn’t realize how common it was until we started hunting them in December ago a few years. With snow on the ground, you can see their tracks.
âThey were sneaking around you,â he said.
Everyone broke up after lunch except me and another guy.
We hunted for another hour (on worn ground) and rinsed two roosters – both well out of reach. So maybe Lounsbury’s on something here; maybe you can have too good a prairie habitat for pheasant hunters.
But not too good for pheasants.