When uncovering pheasants, knowing their habitat is essential

Anyone who wonders why pheasants no longer flourish throughout Michigan the way they did 40 years ago should have spent Saturday morning walking the fields with Dennis Fijalkowski and his pal Milos Cihelka.

Fijalkowski, executive director of the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy in Bath, owns a chunk of what was once prosperous farmland in an area 20 miles northeast of Lansing, and he also had permission to hunt land owned by nearby farmers.

For years he has managed the farm not for crops or domestic animals but for wildlife, especially pheasants, and the results are remarkable.

"I'm the world's worst shot with a shotgun. I can't hit anything," Fijalkowski said after he missed two shots at a rooster pheasant that flew off cackling in derision. He shook his head in disbelief and said, "I've had three or four go up right in front of me that I should have hit."

It was the opening day of the pheasant season in the Lower Peninsula (runs through Nov. 14), and in about two hours Fijalkowski and Cihelka flushed eight roosters and four hens from a patch of ground covering about 30 acres.

What makes this land so rich in pheasants is that it hasn't been worked for crops for some time. Rich, rank growth that most farmers would have plowed under as weeds grew right up to the roadsides.

It's ideal nesting and roosting cover for the birds, so expansive and dense that any fox or coyote looking for a pheasant dinner would have had to hunt a lot of ground and would most likely be heard approaching before reaching the bird.

Right across the road were unharvested cornfields, the pheasant equivalent of an all-you-can eat buffet. And connecting the different habitats were weedy ditches and windbreaks of trees that let the birds move from one field to another with little exposure to predators.

While nearly all of the fallow land offered good cover for pheasants, it was clear that they had very set preferences about where they lived in it. When the morning started, Fijalkowski and Cihelka walked a field where the goldenrod, ragweed and high grasses were thickly dotted with shoulder-high stems of burdock, and the only bird they saw in the first 20 minutes was a hen that popped out of the edge.

Pheasants will eat burdock but usually during the winter, when the seeds on the burrs are among the few foods left and the thick stalks provide a place to shelter under the snow.

But when the hunters turned a corner at the end of the field and began walking through knee-to-chest-high canary grass, a pheasant came whirring and cackling out of the maze of tunnels under the grass stems every few minutes.

After missing another bird, Fijalkowski said, "I've only got the three rounds that are in my gun. I didn't bring a lot of shells because I never expected it would be this good. I've shot more this morning than I did all of last pheasant season."

About 45 minutes' drive away, Jim Burton was getting back in his SUV after hunting a Department of Natural Resources access area.

"Not a bad morning," said Burton, who lives in Lansing and was hunting with his 4-year-old Labrador, Homer. "We got a limit (two rooster pheasants) and saw three more cocks and four or five hens."

"Both of the roosters came out of the same HAP (Hunter Access Program) field. I missed a couple of shots at two other places we hunted earlier. Still a little rusty, I guess."

Burton, who asked that his hunting sites not be identified, said he has been able to find birds on HAP sites for the last three or four years, "But you have to pick the right places. I drive to them and look them over. What I want to see is a lot of thick, tall grasses _ canary grass is great _ with a food source close by."

"If I get to a place and find that it's been grazed, or the birds have to cross a quarter-mile of open ground to get something to eat, I just drive on to the next spot," he said.

Back at Fijalkowski's place, one bird gave him a straightaway shot, and he dumped it with a single shell from his 12-gauge shotgun.

"That's the kind of shot I like to see," Fijalkowski said, putting the bird in the game pocket of his vest. "Even I couldn't miss that one."