Kicking Off Dove Hunting Season

January 29, 2009 by  

By Doug Leier

Mourning doves are abundant all over the US

Mourning doves are abundant all over the US

As a young hunter in North Dakota 20 years ago, mourning doves were synonymous with the kick off to autumn. At that time, dove hunting opened earlier than any other major bird season, so doves were top priority for a week or two until we could hunt sharp-tailed grouse and partridge.

I think the emergence of an early Canada goose season in North Dakota a few years back has taken some of the early fall spotlight once directed at doves. However, doves were, and still are today, a respected and highly popular game bird.

Their small body size and manic flight pattern combine to put doves near the top in terms of degree of difficulty to bag. Veteran dove hunters have always related that shooting a limit of doves (15) with a box of shells (25) is a pretty tough challenge.

In recent years, I haven’t specifically hunted doves as much as I once did. What used to be full day dove hunts have become a couple of hours or an evening walk along the edge of a sunflower field to hopefully get a crack at a few doves making their way between feeding fields and their roost.

History and biology

North Dakota held its first mourning dove season in 1963, and another followed in 1964. But after two years, state lawmakers voted to end dove hunting. Efforts to restore a dove season continued over the years, and in 1979 dove hunting was restored and has remained open ever since.

Mike Szymanski, North Dakota Game and Fish Department migratory bird biologist, is a dove fan both personally and professionally. “I take dove hunting pretty seriously,” Szymanski says. “I love hunting them; they’re a challenge and a pretty tasty bird.”

Morning doves, as usual, all in a row

Morning doves, as usual, all in a row

Mourning doves typically nest from April to September, and may raise more than one batch of young during the nesting season in North Dakota. In warmer climates, they can rear five or six clutches. The typical nest contains two white eggs, with an incubation period of 13-15 days. Young are in the nest from 12-15 days before they can fly.

Currently, biologists across the country are trying to learn more about doves. North Dakota is one of 26 states participating in a three-year study, during which more than 85,000 mourning doves will be trapped and banded. Biologists hope to determine harvest rates, estimate annual survival, provide information on geographic distribution of harvest, and develop and refine techniques for future banding.

The banding project got started in North Dakota in 2003, when 758 doves were trapped in the state and fitted with small metal leg bands. In 2004, the number of birds trapped and banded jumped to 1,294 birds. “The biggest part of the project is updating our data and improving population models, which enable scientists to make better harvest management decisions,” Szymanski said.

Mourning doves are the most numerous migratory game bird in North America and more doves are harvested by hunters than all other migratory game birds combined. “Dove hunting is serious stuff in most states,” Szymanski said. For example, according to federal estimates in 2004, the No. 1 dove harvest state was Texas where hunters bagged nearly 5.7 million birds.

In North Dakota, mourning doves aren’t as actively pursued as in Texas. In 2004, according to federal estimates, only about 57,500 doves were shot in the state. “People in North Dakota don’t often recognize doves as viable targets because they are so small,” Szymanski said. “Plus, a good portion of the birds leave the state before the season even opens on September 1.”

As the mourning dove banding study continues and data is analyzed, more questions will be answered. So far, doves banded in North Dakota have been taken Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Mexico.

An interesting find this summer is that researchers have recaptured several birds banded in the state last year. These returns identify doves that survived a long migration south, a return trek north, and a host of other hurdles that include predators, weather and hunters.

This fall, as you cruise by doves perched above a waiting sunflower field, imagine the places those birds may have been.


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