In many ways it’s rather sad that the most realistic small game hunting in our area has been reduced to primarily for grey squirrel, cottontail rabbit (although the best rabbit habitats are spotty and often near roadways), and wild turkey. As many senior readers probably recall, October was once a month when area hunters sought pheasant, grouse, woodcock and rabbit, but that was decades ago, before the birth of the mammoth NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) in 1972.
Of course change is inevitable in nearly everything, given sufficient time and changing demographics and public attitudes. However, it’s noteworthy – at least to me – that government usually plays a major role in the changes that occur, and the DEC has certainly been no exception.
Whereas the predecessor of the DEC, the NYS Conservation Department, was primarily a fish and game agency, its demise reflected a changing attitude by the State as well as public demographics as more people left the rural areas to reside in or near urban areas. Increasingly fewer residents hunted or trapped, and increasingly fewer understood or cared how wildlife management worked and why it was necessary. The focus rapidly turned to total environmental issues and concerns and less on fish and game, their management and habitat conservation and development thereof.
These, combined with major changes in agricultural techniques and the steady replacement of active farmlands and wetland habitat by abandonment or with either residential or commercial development, gradually transformed and changed what was once excellent wildlife habitat for many popular species while new, less compatible habitat replaced it. This pretty much sounded the death toll for many low-growth wildlife species, many of which were game species. Habitat more conducive to attracting and supporting deer, wild turkey, coyote, and of late, bear emerged. And suburban-adaptive species such as deer, skunk, raccoon and even coyote increasingly became the norm.
With several hunting seasons opening on October 1 – grouse, cottontail rabbit, coyote and turkey – the one that will probably attract the most hunters is turkey, and with good reason … they’re the most plentiful gamebird we have available now. Yes, you might find an area or two that harbors a halfway decent number of grouse, but each year those coverts are becoming harder to find as the ideal habitat for the birds matures beyond their liking and needs.
Where cottontails used to be found in abundance near hedgerows and edge growth areas on operating farms, now much of that habitat has matured and grown and few rabbits will be found there. Conversely, fringe areas near developments and along roadways continue to offer the best cottontail habitat, but hunting there is impractical or illegal and dangerous for rabbit hounds that might be struck by vehicles on the roadways.
So, with all this in mind, here’s about what small game hunters can expect this fall...