JEFFERSON CITY–For many Missourians, the opening of dove season Sept. 1 marks the start of hunting season, and the state’s top mourning dove expert says this year’s season is full of promise.
Approximately 33,000 people hunt doves in the Show-Me State. Resource Scientist John Schulz says the mourning dove not only is the state’s most popular game bird, it is the most democratic, attracting hunters from every walk of life.
This popularity results from the mourning dove’s prolific nature. A pair of doves can easily raise six broods of two chicks each nesting season, starting as early as March and persevering well into September. Population surveys conducted in May and June showed a slight drop in dove numbers, but Schulz said this is nothing for hunters to worry about.
“You have to keep in mind that those surveys are a snapshot in time,” said Schulz. “When they were conducted we were having a lot of heavy rain. That may have caused a decrease in early hatching, but a lot can change between June 1 and Sept. 1.”
Schulz said reports he gets from around the state indicate an abundance of doves, and he sees plenty of doves wherever he goes.
“I’m seeing birds everywhere, and I’m hearing the same thing from people all around the state. If things stay like they are, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a very good harvest this year.”
Abundance does not guarantee quality hunting, however. Hunters can spend hours in the field and only see a handful of doves, mostly too far away for a shot, unless something draws the birds into a small area. That “something” usually is an agricultural field. Doves have a strong preference for landing on bare ground, and they love to eat sunflowers, corn, wheat, sorghum and other grain left in crop fields after harvest. The first fields harvested each year attract astonishing numbers of doves.
Knowing this, the Conservation Department arranges to have sunflowers and other crops planted on 150 fields at 90 areas around the state. The fields total approximately 5,000 acres. These fields are managed to offer abundant food for doves and maximum opportunity for hunters.
“When people ask me how to find a dove hunting spot, I ask them how they couldn’t find one,” said Schulz. “We go out of our way to make sure there’s a managed dove field near almost everybody who wants to go dove hunting.”
He said hunters can call any Conservation Department office to learn the location of managed dove fields or use the interactive locator map at http://bit.ly/cSBEJn.
He offered one caution about the Conservation Department’s managed dove fields. Repeated heavy rains early in the summer hampered planting and growth of crops on some fields. Hunters should visit fields they want to hunt beforehand or at least call area managers for up-to-date information about field condition. Contact information for area managers is available through the Conservation Atlas database at http://bit.ly/1h2XwO.
Schulz also had advice for hunters who enjoy the challenge of finding their own, private dove-hunting spots. The obvious choice is to get permission from a farmer who has a harvested crop field. Some farmers do still welcome hunters, but the days of easy permission are past.
“It’s not 1965 anymore, and Aunt Bea isn’t in the kitchen baking peach cobbler,” said Schulz. “If you want to hunt farm ground today, you usually have to know the farmers or take time to build relationships with them.”
Other options are available, however. Hunters who understand doves’ habits and preferences sometimes can locate spots as productive as any managed dove field.
Doves like open ground, seeds, perching sites and water. Any spot that combines two or more of these elements can be an excellent hunting spot. An abandoned gravel road, an old airstrip or parking lot is a start. A pond with a wide margin of bare soil or mud is another possibility. Add a telephone line or some dead trees for perching, and you have a dove magnet.
“Say you have an old roadbed with foxtail and other weeds growing beside the pavement. The weeds drop their seeds, and maybe there are some low spots that catch rainfall. Birds can fly down to pick up seeds, flutter over a short distance for a drink, then fly back up to perch and digest their meal. A place like that can be just as good as a managed dove field.”
The Conservation Department bands approximately 2,500 birds annually as part of a nationwide effort to create a dove-management database. Approximately 12 percent of those doves are recovered and reported, mostly by hunters. Schulz said the most important thing dove hunters can do to improve their sport is to check every bird they shoot for a leg band and report any they find at www.reportband.gov/ or by calling 800-327-BAND (2263).
“Data from band recoveries drive a wide array of analytical processes that directly affect how we establish mourning dove regulations each year,” said Schulz. “By reporting band numbers, hunters are helping manage our dove resource for future generations.”
He said a small number of hunters are asked to take part in the National Mourning Dove Hunter Wing Survey each year. Under this program, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) gives hunters pre-paid mailers in which to send wings from doves they shoot to the annual National Mourning Dove Wing Bee in Kansas City. Biologists from around the nation gather there to examine wings for age and other characteristics.
Statistics from conservation areas where the Conservation Department records the number of doves killed and the number of shots fired show that hunters fire an average of five shots per dove. If you kill a limit of 15 doves with fewer than three boxes of shotgun shells, pat yourself on the back for being an above-average wingshot.
Then pick up all the empty hulls littering the ground around you. Leaving them in the field is littering, and could earn you a ticket.
Conservation Department press release archives are available at www.mdc.mo.gov/news.
A hunting/fishing season calendar is available at www.mdc.mo.gov/seasons/