Doves, Kids and Hunting

By John H. Schulz | August 2, 2000
From Missouri Conservationist: Aug 2000

Kids love computer games because of their fast-paced excitement and the demand for thinking and hand-eye coordination. If you'd like to entice your child away from the computer this September, try taking him or her mourning dove hunting.

Dove hunting provides action and plenty of it! Mourning doves can fly faster than 40 mph and perform seemingly impossible aerial acrobatics. Wing shooting doves is challenging. Their dull gray feathers and deceptive flight speed allow doves to sneak up on you and be out gun range again in seconds.

Mourning doves are the most numerous and widely distributed migratory game bird in North America. They use all habitats, except northern forests and wetlands. They annually rank as one of the 10 most numerous bird species in North America. This is one of the reasons why doves are such popular game birds. A 1991 survey showed that Missouri dove hunters added $5.1 million to the state's economy. Nationally, mourning dove hunting generates more than $5 million annually for wildlife programs from the 11 percent excise tax on ammunition.

You can make dove hunting more meaningful and educational for you and your youngster by learning more about the birds' biology and life history.

Mourning doves are one of our most prolific nesting birds. In some parts of the U.S. they nest year round, while in Missouri they can nest from March through September with three to six nesting attempts.

Doves spend 10 to 14 days in the nest after hatching. Because the long nesting season overlaps with the beginning of hunting season, biologists conducted research to see if dove hunting impacted nesting success. Results from the project showed that less than 3 percent of all dove nests were started after the beginning of the hunting season, and 80 percent of the nesting activity usually occurs from mid-April to early September. Other studies have shown that young doves can survive on their own as early as five days after hatching.

Male mourning doves usually take the lead in defending a territory and selecting a nest site. Doves are famous for their flimsy nests, usually located 3 to 15 feet up in trees. Doves also nest on the ground. Research conducted in Missouri shows that success rates of tree nests and ground nests are similar. Females lay a two-egg clutch, and eggs hatch in 14 to 15 days. During incubation, both the male and female attend the nest. After hatching, squabs (young doves) are fed crop milk or pigeon's milk, which consists of partially digested seeds and sloughed off skin cells from the crop.

As the squabs grow, their parents decrease crop milk feedings and the young doves slowly switch to a grain diet. The entire nesting cycle from nest building to fledging requires about 32 days.

You can increase your take of doves by learning a little about dove feeding behavior. Scientists classify mourning doves as exclusive grain-eating ground feeders. That means they eat plant seeds that are lying on bare ground. Some hunters may have seen doves hanging upside down on sunflower heads, but those are exceptions. Because doves have weak feet and legs, they cannot scratch for buried seeds like chickens or quail; the seed has to be on top of the ground. The mourning dove bill is also weak, compared to most seed-eating birds.

When looking for places to hunt doves, remember doves will take advantage of seasonal food abundances. Preferred seeds include wild and cultivated sunflowers, corn, wheat, foxtail, ragweed and various millets. Croton, a common wild flower seed, is such an important dove food in some areas that the plant is called dove weed. Remember, doves prefer open areas for foraging with seed easily available on bare ground.

Because mourning doves are migratory game birds, harvest management is a cooperative venture between the states and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Each year, USFWS and state biologists review previous population trend data and recommend hunting season frameworks. Hunting season options vary across the country because of regional differences in dove populations.

Based on banding data, three distinct areas or management units have been shown to contain largely independent dove populations. Each population, or management unit, is managed separately. States have various hunting options to choose from concerning season length, daily bag limit and splits and zones within a state.

Missouri is in the Central Management Unit. Although mourning dove hunting regulations have changed little for several years, it is a good idea to double-check the current hunting regulations before heading out.

The Conservation Department manages many of its areas for mourning dove hunting. Bois D'Arc Conservation Area near Springfield annually conducts a special youth hunt. The young hunters attend a training clinic the week before hunting and then get to participate in a special hunt the following Saturday. Some areas, like Davisdale Conservation Area in central Missouri, provide unrestricted access with a flurry of action on opening morning.

Other areas, like Eagle Bluffs, William R. Logan, and William G. White and Erma Parke Memorial Wildlife Area are managed to provide a "quality" hunting experience and a longer season. These areas often limit the number of hunters by assigning hunters to stations. Shooting stations are determined by a daily drawing for at least the first week or two of the season.

Other areas, like the James A. Reed Memorial Wildlife Area, can handle several hundred hunters at a time by having multiple sunflower fields where the number of hunters per day is regulated. Some areas have multiple fields where hunting is rotated on a predetermined schedule. Other areas have hunted and nonhunted fields to provide a refuge area for feeding mourning doves. Some areas also managed for waterfowl have steel shot restrictions. Always double-check the area regulations before leaving home.

Conservation areas managed for dove hunting have special fields to attract and hold birds during the hunting season. Some areas provide burned wheat stubble, which provides an ideal feeding place for hungry doves. After a few days of rain, however, the wheat seed sprouts and is unusable by the birds.

Although wheat stubble and cut corn are traditional dove hunting areas, dove hunters often equate hunting with sunflowers, lots of sunflowers. Conservation areas usually have specially planted sunflower fields that are mowed and disced to attract doves throughout late summer and early fall.

Not only do managed sunflower fields provide great dove hunting spots, they also provide a valuable food source for migrating doves. Other seed-eating birds, such as American goldfinches, cardinals and black-capped chickadees, make extensive use of these managed fields long into the cold winter months.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer