Nebraska offers excellent mixed bag opportunities for the small game hunter. A diversity of species can be pursued from charismatic upland game birds like pheasant, quail, or prairie grouse to webless migratory birds and other small game such as dove (view 2020 Mourning Dove Hunting Fact Sheet), snipe, squirrel, cottontail, and more. Hunters can explore publicly accessible lands across a wide variety of habitats, each containing a unique suite of small game species.
Upland Game Birds:
The ring-necked pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) is undoubtedly Nebraska’s most popular upland game bird. Pheasants can be identified by their long tail feathers and unique coloration. The male (rooster) is more brightly colored than the brown/tan-colored female (hen) and sports a green neck ringed in white. Pheasants were originally introduced to North America from Asia, and the first Nebraska hunting season was held in 1927. Pheasants currently have a statewide distribution, but can be found in highest abundance on open landscapes that include ample grass cover and a strong presence of small grain crops. The best hunting opportunities are typically found in Southwest Nebraska and portions of the Panhandle. Other good opportunities, however, can be found where adequate habitat exists on the landscape.
The northern bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus) is second to the pheasant in popularity among Nebraska upland hunters. A small, plump, and mostly brown-colored bird; males have distinct black and white markings on the face while females display a duller yellow-brown color on the face. The distinctive “bob-bob-white” call of the male can be heard along country roads from early spring into summer. Bobwhites are native to Nebraska and primarily distributed throughout the eastern and southern portions of the state, with core populations in Southeast and South-Central Nebraska. Harsh winters serve as a key regulatory factor for bobwhites in Nebraska, and in years following milder winters populations tend to expand north and west into other regions of the state where suitable habitat exists.
Nebraska is home to two species of prairie grouse: the greater prairie-chicken (Tympanuchus cupido pinnatus) and the sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus jamesi). Greater prairie-chickens have rounded tails and dark “barring” or horizontal lines on their plumage, while sharp-tailed grouse have tail feathers that come to point and dark “chevrons” or v-shaped markings on their plumage. Every spring, males of both species inflate air sacs and conduct unique courtship dances. During breeding, male prairie-chickens inflate bright yellow air sacs and raise their long pinnae feathers, while male sharp-tailed grouse display violet colored air sacs. Breeding grounds are called “leks” and birds often return to the same locations every year. As a rule of thumb, these prairie birds tend to thrive where higher percentages of grassland and lower percentages of tree cover are present across a landscape. Native to Nebraska, both species share a primary range in the Nebraska Sandhills (north-central part of the state). Sharp-tailed grouse can also be found to the west throughout much of the Panhandle, while greater prairie chickens can be found where suitable habitat exists in Southwest and South-Central Nebraska as well as in certain portions of eastern Nebraska.
The Hungarian or gray partridge (Perdix perdix) is an introduced game bird native to Eurasia. It is uncommon in Nebraska, being at the southern extent of the species’ introduced range in North America. The chukar partridge (Alectoris chukar) does not have an established wild population in Nebraska, but is commonly raised in captivity and released by Controlled Shooting Areas and Captive Wildlife Permittees for hunting purposes. Escapees can often be found in suitable habitat around such areas.
Webless Migratory Birds:
Hunters in Nebraska may encounter three species of doves while afield. The most commonly harvested species is the mourning dove (Zenaida macroura), which is a migratory species and one of the most popular game birds in the United States in terms of harvest. The migratory, white-winged dove (Zenaida asiatica) is an occasional visitor to Nebraska, but can be legally harvested during the regular dove season. Unlike mourning and white-winged doves, the Eurasian collared-dove (Streptopelia decaocto) is a non-native, non-migratory species. The collared-dove was first introduced into the Bahamas in the 1970s, and made landfall in Florida in the early 1980s. It has since spread across the country in a northwesterly direction. Collared-doves can be harvested year round, but during the regular dove season, harvested individuals count towards the aggregate dove bag/possession limits. For more information visit The Central Flyway. Dove hunters are encouraged to look for leg bands on any doves they shoot. Every year, biologists across the country place bands on thousands of doves, and hunters play a vital role in dove management by reporting any bands they recover.
Sunflower, millet, or wheat generally provide good dove-hunting opportunities and have been planted at a number of Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) across the state. A listing of those WMAs and additional areas offering good hunting opportunities can be found in the 2020 Mourning Dove Hunting Fact Sheet. Dove activity patterns may change due to adverse weather conditions, changes in feeding field conditions and other factors. To have the best hunt possible, identify several potential hunting sites and visit them often. Watch doves throughout the day to determine when and where they’re flying.
The common snipe (Gallinago gallinago) is a migratory shorebird that breeds in northern Canada. Nebraska is at the northern extent of the species’ winter range, with peak migration occurring in mid-September through early October. In Nebraska, snipe can often be found near wetlands and adjacent habitats.
The sora (Porzana carolina) and Virginia rail (Rallus limicola) are migratory, freshwater marsh birds whose breeding range includes Nebraska. However, individuals that have bred further north migrate through the state during the fall migration.
Eastern Nebraska is at the western extreme of the American woodcock’s (Scolopax minor) breeding range. Unlike the rails and snipe, the woodcock is a forest-dwelling shorebird and nests in young forests and old fields. A migratory species, woodcocks winter in the southeastern United States.
The American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos), a migratory species, is a year-round resident in Nebraska. They are widespread across the state, especially in agricultural areas. In the past, large aggregations of crows on roosts in certain areas of Nebraska constituted a public health hazard, necessitating a special harvest season in addition to the regular hunting seasons.
Other Small Game:
The fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) can be found in Nebraska nearly everywhere except the treeless expanses of the Sandhills, Panhandle, and the southwest. The related eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) can be found along the Missouri River bluffs in southeastern Nebraska. Both species have hunting seasons. The southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans), found only in remnant fragments of eastern deciduous forests in extreme southeast Nebraska, is not a game species and is listed as a state threatened species.
Two species of cottontail rabbit can be found in Nebraska. The abundant, eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) is the most widespread across the state. The desert or Audubon’s cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii) can be found primarily west of Ogallala. Cottontails are also an important game animal among small game hunters.
There are two species of jackrabbit, or hare, that call Nebraska home: the black-tailed jackrabbit (Lepus californicus) and the white-tailed jackrabbit (Lepus townsendii). Both species can be hunted west of Highway 81 in Nebraska; east of Highway 81 there is a closed season on both species.