Having a Blast

By Matt Seek | August 1, 2011
From Xplor: August/September 2011

For end-of-summer fun, nothing beats a dove hunt.

Imagine sitting on a bucket tucked along the edge of a weedy field. A few rows of sunflowers, bleached gray by the sun, reach high into a bluebird sky. Bright yellow goldfinches flit about gathering seeds, katydids whine in the undergrowth and the peppery smell of dried-out vegetation hangs in the air.

Suddenly a wad of sleek gray birds streaks into view. You snap from the bucket, shoulder your shotgun, swing the barrel to catch up with the flock. Bang! The birds swoop and scatter. Bang! Bang! On your third shot, you see a puff of feathers, and a bird tumbles from the sky. You can’t help grinning at your luck. You just bagged a mourning dove.

Seed-Eating, Ground-Feeding, Baby Factories

Mourning doves are grayish-brown birds with a pinkish tint. You’ve probably seen them pecking at seeds beneath your bird feeder or perched on a telephone wire. Doves swallow seeds whole and store them in a little pouch in their throat called a crop. Then they fly to a perch to digest their meal.

In March, dove couples begin piecing together a flimsy jumble of sticks for a nest. Females usually lay two eggs, which hatch in about two weeks. Both parents feed their babies “pigeon milk,” a thick liquid produced in their crops. A couple of weeks after hatching, young doves can fend for themselves, and parents lay more eggs. In Missouri, doves nest through September, which means a single pair can produce 14 or more babies!

America's Most Popular Game Bird

Hnters bag more mourning doves than any other migratory bird, and for good reason. Doves are incredibly common—about 350 million live in the United States. Dove hunting doesn’t require a lot of special gear. Dove season, which opens September 1 in Missouri, usually offers beautiful fall weather. And, most importantly, dove hunting is just plain fun.

Sleek Gray Streaks

Mourning doves can zip along at 40 miles per hour, streaking into and out of gun range in seconds. But speed alone isn’t what makes dove hunting such a thrill (and so much of a challenge). Doves twist, swoop and corkscrew through the air in ways that would make a stunt pilot reach for a barf bag. Trying to bag a limit of 15 doves requires keen eyes—and plenty of shotgun shells!

Think like a dove

Finding a place to dove hunt is easy. You just have to think like a dove. Doves need seeds on the ground, water to drink and perches to rest upon. Any place with these three things will draw doves. Harvested crop fields, sunflower fields and weedy pastures are dove magnets. Many conservation areas are managed for doves, also. Check mdc.mo.gov/18183 to find a conservation area to hunt.

Dove Hunting 101

Doves are most active in the morning and late afternoon. If you have the place all to yourself, you can walk around and try to flush doves off the ground. Most hunters, however, find a spot at the edge of a field where they sit and wait for doves to fly by. Should a flock come your way, shoulder your gun and wait for the birds to get within 30–40 yards. Never shoot at low-flying doves! Always aim at least 45 degrees above the horizon to avoid hitting other hunters. Pick out a single dove and track just a bit ahead of it with your shotgun. Squeeze the trigger and continue to swing the shotgun even after the shot. If you miss, shoot again. If you hit a bird, watch it all the way to the ground.

Know Before You Go

Pay attention to safety and follow the law, or your hunt might go south faster than a migrating dove. Learn to safely handle a gun, and always hunt with an adult. Before heading afield, read the rules in the Migratory Bird Hunting Digest. Pick up a free copy where permits are sold, or find it at mdc.mo.gov/node/3641.

Gear Up

  • Most dove hunters use a 12- or 20-gauge shotgun. A semiautomatic— one that shoots and reloads each time you pull the trigger—is good for the quick shooting dove hunting requires. Regardless of which shotgun you use, it must be plugged so it can hold no more than three shells.
  • Camouflage clothes help later in the season when doves have been shot at a lot, but they aren’t essential.
  • A 5-gallon bucket is great for packing in your gear, water and snacks. It also makes a good seat and helps collect all your spent shotgun shells and other trash.
  • Bring lots of shotgun shells—you’ll need ’em. For lead shot, use sizes 8 or 9. For nontoxic shot, use sizes 6 or 7. Some places require you to shoot nontoxic shot. Even in areas that don’t, consider using nontoxic shot. When lead shot falls to the ground it can be eaten by doves and other birds. Lead is poisonous and can cause the birds to get sick or die.
  • Don’t forget safety glasses and ear protection. Also bring an adult to keep you company and show you the ropes.

Know Your Doves

In addition to mourning doves, whitewinged and Eurasian collared-doves are legal to shoot during dove season. Be careful, though. Other birds—such as nighthawks, kestrels, shorebirds and songbirds—might buzz past. If you’re not sure, don’t shoot!

Mourning Dove

  • most common dove
  • grayish-brown
  • small head, long pointed tai
  • strong, fast, shifting flight

White-Winged Dove

  • color similar to mourning dove
  • same size as mourning dove, but chunkier
  • flies straighter, wingbeats slower than mourning dove

Eurasian Collared Dove

  • more gray than mourning dove
  • much larger than mourning dove

And More...

This Issue's Staff

David Besenger
Bonnie Chasteen
Chris Cloyd
Peg Craft
Brett Dufur
Les Fortenberry
Chris Haefke
Karen Hudson
Regina Knauer
Kevin Lanahan
Kevin Muenks
Noppadol Paothong
Marci Porter
Mark Raithel
Laura Scheuler
Matt Seek
Tim Smith
David Stonner
Nichole LeClair Terrill
Stephanie Thurber
Cliff White
Kipp Woods