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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
Nichole LeClair Terrill