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"Why the heck do you want to hunt doves?" my friend asked. "They're so small! You'll have to shoot quite a few to make a meal of them."
"Why do you fish for bluegills?" I countered. "They're so small! You'll have to catch quite a few to make a meal of them."
"But mourning doves are the state symbol of peace!" he touted.
"Whitetails are the state wildlife mammal and muskies are the state fish. I sure hope the label "state symbol" doesn't designate something that can't be eaten. Dairy cows are the state domestic animal. No more dairy products in Wisconsin? That'll go over big!" I chided him. "Besides, I go on plenty of hunting trips where all I come home with is a bag limit of peace and quiet."
I thought I had made my case. He persisted, "Okay, but what kind of challenge is there in hunting doves? I practically have to chase them out of my bird feeders, and a bird on a wire is like a fish in a barrel."
I replied, "Have you ever heard the story of the country mouse and the city mouse? Same animal, two separate lifestyles. Doves are the same way, just like waterfowl. Just because you can hand-feed some mallards and geese in a city park, doesn't mean you can drive out to the marsh and get them to walk up to your truck!"
"So how do doves taste?" he asked. I answered, "I hear they are excellent table fare, but I honestly couldn't tell you, I haven't had a chance to eat one...yet. But that's going to change this fall!"
For 85 years, mourning doves have not been hunted in Wisconsin. Thanks to several years of effort, education and biopolitics, Wisconsin will join 39 other states that list doves as a huntable gamebird this fall. Mourning dove season will open September 1st and run through October 30th. As in most states, the bag limit will be 15 birds per day, and the possession limit will be 30. Doves are a federally managed migratory gamebird. Although you don't need a federal or state migratory bird stamp to hunt them, you are required to use a magazine plug to limit your gun's capacity to three shells. You will also need to go through HIP certification when you buy your small game, sportsman, or patron license, just as you would to hunt migratory woodcock.
Mourning doves are small game, but certainly no smaller than other popular quarry including woodcock, snipe, quail and green-winged teal. It takes about three doves per person to make a decent meal, but the abundance and prolific reproduction of the species allow for very liberal bag limits without impacting the population. Nationally, more doves are harvested than all other migratory gamebirds combined. So what is this dove hunting all about? Take the opportunity this fall to find out for yourself.
Why hunt doves?
Mourning doves have all of the requisite qualities of a gamebird. They are abundant, a successful hunt is an acquired skill, and they make excellent table fare. Since doves feed almost exclusively on weed seeds and small grain, the meat has a mild flavor that can be accented with your favorite red meat marinades and sauces.
Doves are prolific breeders. Although a hen only lays two eggs per nesting attempt, they nest early and raise several clutches in a Wisconsin summer. Chicks hatch, fledge and are on their own in only a month's time. Animals with such high birth rates subsequently also have high death rates, and doves provide food for many animals in the food chain. Regulated hunting accounts for a small portion of their mortality and will not influence the future size of the population. In fact when you compare long-term population trends across North America, you can't tell which states allow dove hunts. As with all wildlife, habitat and weather determine the population.
Don't let the image of a dove sitting on a wire or birdfeeder fool you. Shooting doves within city limits at birdfeeders or on utility wires is illegal, unsafe and unethical. But a dove on the wing in open country will humble the best wingshots among us. Ohio studies show that urban doves tend to stay in town and do not expose themselves very often to hunting. On the other hand, they stand a much greater chance of becoming a meal for free-roaming neighborhood cats.
The opportunity to pursue doves adds a new opener to the hunter's calendar. The first several weeks of September are shared with early season goose hunters. Archery deer and several small game seasons open in mid-September, but most bird hunting doesn't get into high gear until October, so plan on adding to your days afield this fall. Spend some serious time during summer at the skeet or sporting clay range. Work on crossing and overhead shots to get ready for the dove fields. Early season goose hunters might plan on bringing along a box of nontoxic 7 ½ shot for the hours when the geese aren't flying. Those harvested small grain fields can be attractive to doves too!
Another nice feature, dove hunting takes relatively little gear to participate. You can buy some dove decoys to perhaps increase your chances, but a youth or novice hunter can get started with just a shotgun and a couple boxes of inexpensive field loads. A word of caution for starting new hunters: shooting doves will not be easy. When taking a new hunter afield, judge his or her ability and enthusiasm. If they would get frustrated or turned off by an initial lack of success, start with other small game. At a minimum, offer support and wing shooting tips, and don't get their expectations too high early on.
Thinking like a dove hunter
Just like other hunting, the more preparation you put into your dove hunts, the more you will get out of them. Start by walking before the first day of the season with a five-gallon bucket. Sit down, do some scouting, and learn by trial and error. Hunters in southern states have the luxury of more and more doves arriving as winter approaches. Here in the northern latitudes of the mourning dove's range, we will have to spend a little more time looking for that perfect spot; and that perfect spot will change often.
In August, doves start flocking up as they seek feeding, drinking and roosting sites before flying south. Scouting strategy should center on finding these areas and setting up at a good vantage point between where doves fly from roosting sites to feeding or drinking sites. Doves like to feed and drink where there is very little cover for predators, so look for harvested grain fields and water sources that are partially dried up, places where there is a good strip of bare ground between the water and the surrounding vegetation.
While you're scouting for dove activity, study the birds in flight and learn their characteristics to tell them apart from other birds of similar size. One of the first rules of safe, ethical hunting is to always identify your target before you shoot. American kestrels and killdeer are about the same size and frequent the same habitat. Learn their markings and coloration, then look for wing size and beat as additional clues. Doves have a quick wing beat when cruising in open country. They approach a landing with short pauses in their flapping and draw their wings close to their body. Kestrels can flap as quickly as a dove, but kestrels pause from flapping more often to glide. A kestrel's head is much larger in proportion to its body than a dove's. Killdeer have longer, narrower wings compared to doves, and flap slower with a noticeable snap to their down stroke. They rarely glide and never fly in groups. Killdeer may be seen alone or in loose groups. Doves may be alone, in loose groups or large flocks. Killdeer are often vocal when they fly, calling out their name kill-deer. When doves are within shotgun range, you will often be able to hear their wings whistling, if the wind isn't too strong.
As with turkey and pheasant hunts, most good dove hunting opportunities will be on private land. Unlike turkey and pheasant, the good spots will change from year to year, so remain flexible and always get permission from landowners before entering private property. Understand that because of fieldwork schedules, pastured livestock, or other concerns, you will not always get hunting permission. You will also encounter unharvested fields during much of the season. Be careful not to damage standing crops. These fields should just be avoided. There will likely be less dove activity there and downed birds will be harder to find in taller vegetation. Always represent yourself and other hunters well by treating all landowners and their property with respect. You will meet a lot of nice people along the way.
Once you have permission to hunt a likely looking spot, you have to make some decisions. If you hunt right at the feeding, drinking or roosting site, the doves will change their pattern quickly and probably won't be back the next day. If you're not going to hunt doves regularly, these are great places to set up. If you hope to get several hunts from the same area, a better strategy is to find a hunting position somewhere between the dove's daily destinations and pass shoot them. Then let the area rest a few days between hunts. Plan on a bit more scouting time to determine the birds' routine flight paths.
Hunting blinds and camouflage clothing are part of the dove hunting scene, but not as critical as in waterfowl or turkey hunting. Find something to sit or stand behind that will break up your outline, but not block your view of the sky. Dress for the weather in drab clothing. Consider eye and ear protection. If you've picked the right spot, you will be firing your gun more often than you are accustomed to on a typical hunting trip. Which brings us to the next decision – which shotgun to use. If you're like me, you have a 12-gauge that does everything for you. Hitting a flying dove is no easy task, and a healthy number of size 8 pellets in a 12-gauge pattern is not over-gunning the bird. If you get serious about dove hunting, you'll want to down-size to whatever gun gives you the most satisfaction. How much do you want to challenge yourself?
Also consider the temperature when hunting early in the season. Wisconsin bird hunters are not accustomed to bringing along a cooler or bucket with ice to store harvested birds, but bring one. It's important to cool down your birds quickly in the September heat, and the right container can serve as your seat while you scan the skies. If you harvest birds, it's a good idea to remove their entrails before you ice them. They will cool down much faster. If you decide to completely clean your birds at your hunting spot, remember the law requires you to keep the head or a wing attached to the body for identification until you get the birds to your residence.
Also, bring insect repellent until the first hard frost. The best dove action is typically early and late in the day, which is also the best time for mosquito action. And bring water for you and your dogs. Dove hunting is a great chance to get some retrieving work for your dogs, but they will get hot out there, even though the dogs are not putting miles on their feet looking for the flush or the point.
As the 2003 dove season kicks off, please maintain Wisconsin hunters' long tradition as leaders in wildlife stewardship. Respect for doves and appreciation of the landscapes that produce them will only grow stronger with new opportunities. Also feel good that dove hunters' collective investments in a few inexpensive boxes of field loads will help generate tens of thousands of dollars in excise taxes for federal Wildlife Restoration Funds that are returned to the states for wildlife conservation purposes. So if your wing-shooting skills let you down some day, don't remorse. Practice, plan your hunt and enjoy this new opportunity.
Jeff Pritzl is an avid bird hunter and a DNR wildlife manager in Mishicot.