Dive-Bombing Doves In Illinois

Now's the time to get in on our state's hot action with fast-flying mourning doves. One of these picks is surely near you. (September 2009)

Hunters are watching the skies these days, looking for darting gray specks across the blue background and counting the forms sitting on power lines. That can mean only one thing. It's getting close to the opening day of dove season!

Wingshooting enthusiasts are hoping this year will be an upgrade from last year. The annual harvest figures weren't completely tallied yet as this went to press, but preliminary results were indicating the 2008 season to be a little below par.

Ray Marshalla, a migratory bird biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR), is an avid dove hunter. His initial impression was last season was a down year. His personal dove bag was not much more than half the number he usually takes. One particular public land harvest figure he saw also indicated a reduced harvest. The area's harvest was 8,003 doves in 2008 compared with 11,680 in 2008. Other public lands were also reporting a less than stellar season.

"During our dove-banding operations last summer, I noted a lot more mature doves were being captured compared to previous years when mostly young were trapped. This may indicate the reason for lowered harvest because reproduction may have been down. If you remember, we had quite a bit of rain and thunderstorms last spring and summer. Since doves usually make flimsy nests that can easily blow out of the tree during high winds and heavy rain, this may be the best explanation as to why dove reproduction was down last year.

Illinois experienced above-average rainfall throughout the first half of 2008, resulting in the wettest January to July on record. Statewide, precipitation for the seven-month period was 9.4 inches above normal."

Illinois hunters typically harvest a very high number of doves each year, usually to the tune of about 1.5 million. Hunter numbers are usually fairly consistent as well. Illinois dove hunter numbers will usually fall between 54,000 and 63,000 per year. The lowest recently was 51,847 in 2007 and the highest was 78,455 in 2004.

DNR biologists have no way of estimating the total number of birds migrating through the state in a given year, but harvest numbers indicate there are a lot. Nationwide, the dove population is estimated at approximately 450,000,000 birds. Marshalla said that based on band returns, most of the doves shot in Illinois are also hatched in Illinois.

Prairie State dove hunters definitely live in the land of plenty, according to Marshalla.

"Illinois is one of the best dove hunting states in the country. According to federal harvest estimates, Illinois was the No. 2 dove harvest state east of the Mississippi River in 2007; only California and Texas hunters took more doves in states west of the Mississippi River. Illinois also has the best or second-best hunter success rate (doves per hunter, per day hunted) in the country."

Illinois is in the Eastern Management Unit (EMU), which includes 27 states east of the Mississippi River. There are numerous methods used to estimate population numbers and subsequent harvest and natural mortality. However, estimating is not an exact science and there is much discrepancy between the different methods and governing bodies.

For instance, different agencies use the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) and the Call Count Survey (CCS) to make estimates and plot both short-term and long-term trends. They also factor in actual bird sightings, hunter reports and leg band returns. Even so, the data still does not produce uniform results. Therefore, according to Marshalla, the EMU is putting most of its emphasis on banding information to determine the harvest rates and survival of doves.

"Illinois has banded over 1,000 doves per year for the past couple of years and hopes to band 1,500 this year. Hunters are encouraged to examine the legs of harvested doves for bands and use a magnifying glass to read the numbers if they cannot read it otherwise. Reporting these banded doves to the bird-banding lab will be very useful in future management of mourning doves," Marshalla said.

Illinois will again have a 70-day season as in the past couple of years, and that should remain constant into the future.

"Dove season is now a standard 70 days with a daily bag limit of 15. This new season length and bag limit combination was started in 2007 as part of the Eastern Management Unit's new dove harvest strategy. If dove populations dropped dramatically, the bag limit would go down to 10 and if it increased dramatically, it could go up to 20, but the season length would not change. Since most hunters hunt primarily in early September, the dove harvest is affected by bag limit more than season length. This is the opposite for most other small-game species, such as ducks, pheasants and quail."

Migrating doves usually start arriving into Illinois in February. They will stay throughout much of the year and usually will nest up to three times with two eggs per nest. In a good year, a mated pair may produce as many as four or five fledglings. Most of these birds will remain in the state through much of the hunting season, but in the northern part of the state, the highest number of birds is usually only during the first couple weeks or so of the season. The dove migration in Illinois is not very predictable from year to year.

With the opening of dove season right at the doorstep, it is time to start making plans on where to go. Holding or being invited to a dove hunt on private land may be great for those who have the opportunity, but most Prairie State hunters don't fall in that category. Fortunately, there are plenty of public lands scattered about the state that offer dove hunting. Of course, some are better than others in terms of opportunity and numbers of birds. Therefore, based on the latest harvest data available from the DNR, we've picked out some of the top locations to consider this year.

HORSESHOE LAKE -- MADISON STATE PARK
According to Marshalla, recent data shows this to be the No. 1 area in the state for total harvest on public land. Other data has shown the area to be at the top in other years as well. With a consistently high ranking year after year, this spot definitely warrants a close look for this season as well.

The Horseshoe Lake area is actually somewhat complicated to hunt, as it consists of both state and federal property. Part of it is governed by the state, while some of this land is governed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The land is divided into several parcels along the Mississippi River near St. Louis and includes islands in the river proper. Regulations vary between the different units.

The regulations for federal properties east of the Chain of Rocks Canal are the easiest as they follow statewide regulations. Non-toxic shot is required.

Regulations for the remainder of the property are site specific. For the first five days of the season, hunters are required to have a permit, which must be applied for in advance through the Springfield office of the DNR. However, hunters who don't show on the day of the hunt will be replaced through a standby drawing held at the property. This gives other hunters an opportunity to get in on the action.

After the first five days, hunters may show up and register to hunt on a daily basis. However, there are limits on the numbers of hunters allowed at different locations. Once registration exceeds this maximum in a given day, a drawing is held to place hunters in the field. Many other regulations apply.

The Horseshoe Lake property has 4,155 acres of huntable property, although not all is open for dove hunting. Most dove hunting is confined to DNR dove management fields specifically planted and managed for dove hunting.

Hunters will find Horseshoe Lake State Park in Madison County about one mile from Granite City. The office is located at 3321 state Route 111.

The majority of hunting questions can be answered at the state park office or by calling them at (618) 931-0270. Other info may be obtained by contacting the Department of the Army St. Louis District Corps of Engineers at (636) 899-2600.

JIM EDGAR PANTHER CREEK STATE FISH AND WILDLIFE AREA
Over in Cass County is another great location for public-land doves. The latest harvest figures show hunters at the Jim Edgar Panther Creek State Fish and Wildlife Area (FWA) took more than 5,300 doves and expended about 760 man/days of effort. It's a very popular hunting location and one that consistently yields good success and should do so again this season.

There are a total of 16,550 acres at the property, but only about one-third of that is forested. The remainder is a mixture of open lands, row crops and food plots. Typically, about six areas are planted with sunflowers for doves, and other areas are managed with controlled burns. With all the open land and special plantings, this area attracts a huge number of birds every year.

Hunting is much easier at this property than at Horseshoe Lake, although there are special permits required for the first 10 days of the season. Hunters must have a Springfield permit to hunt during the first five days of the season and a special site permit during the second five days of the season. Permits for the second period, as well as filling vacancies and hunter quotas during the first five days, are provided through a daily drawing at the site office at 11 a.m. each morning.

After the first 10 days and until Oct. 31, freelance hunting is allowed on all open areas. Hunters must park in designated locations and must obtain and display a site permit in the windshields of their vehicles.

The property is located about 25 miles northwest of Springfield between Ashland and Chandlerville. For more information on hunting at the FWA, contact site superintendent Mike Wickens at the site office located at 10149 County Highway 11 outside Chandlerville; or call him at (217) 452-7741.

SHELBYVILLE FWA
The latest data shows there were nearly 5,500 doves harvested at the Shelbyville FWA. It was the top public land spot in Region 3 for number of birds killed. Hunters spent more than 1,000 man/days in pursuit of mourning doves there.

Shelbyville FWA is divided into the Kaskaskia Unit and the West Okaw River Unit. The two tracts total more than 6,400 acres and more than half the property is open lands and food plots. Several areas are planted to attract doves and are designated as dove management fields. Other areas of the property are designated as open ground and are available for dove hunting as well.

The management fields require advance application and, during the first five days of the season, a special permit is required as well. Beginning on the sixth day, dove management fields will be open for hunting from noon until sunset. Hunting in the open areas is available during the statewide season, but special regulations are in place regarding shooting times. Dove hunters may hunt between noon and 5 p.m. during the first five days and from noon to sunset afterwards.

All hunters must obtain a free site permit before their first hunt. Dove hunters are required to hunt within 10 feet of stake sites. Non-toxic shot is required in waterfowl management units and other fields designated as such. Dove hunters must use No. 7 1/2 or smaller lead or bismuth shot, or No. 6 or smaller steel or non-toxic shot. Dove hunters not hunting in dove management fields must hunt at least 100 yards from the edge of dove management units.

The two units are located near Sullivan and lie along the banks of the Kaskaskia and West Okaw rivers, providing the names for the two different units. More information on hunting there can be obtained from site superintendent Stan Duzan who can be reached at (217) 665-3112.

TEN MILE CREEK FWA
There are a total of 5,846 acres at the Ten Mile Creek FWA, and approximately 4,995 of them are accessible to hunting. Only about 1,500 of those acres are timbered, so that leaves most of the property in a wide mixture of open habitats. There are open fields, grasslands and row crops. Some of the area is reclaimed strip- mining property. The FWA is divided into four different units.

This area is not as well managed for doves as some of the other public lands profiled. However, the wide diversity of habitats, ample open lands and water sources, natural vegetation and agricultural crops make this place a strong attraction for doves. The latest harvest figures indicated hunters took more than 3,000 doves on the property.

Dove hunting regulations here are not quite as stringent as at the aforementioned properties. During the first five days of the season, dove hunting is allowed from sunrise until 11:30 a.m. daily. From the sixth day through the remainder of the season, dove hunting is allowed under statewide regulations. Only non-toxic shot may be used in areas posted as waterfowl rest areas in the Belle Rive and Eads units.

Ten Mile Creek FWA is located in Hamilton and Jefferson counties near McLeansboro. Hunters must obtain a free site permit before their first day afield. It may be obtained from the site superintendent, district wildlife habitat biologist, or regional DNR office. For more information on hunting, call (618) 643-2862.

DES PLAINES RIVER FWA
Up in the northern part of the state, hunters might want to consider the Des Plaines FWA in Will County. It totals some 5,400 acres, with nearly two-thirds of that being open lands. There is a good diversity of natural vegetation and agricultural foods. The area is home to a good population of doves annually. The most recent hunter tally for harvested doves on the property was just more than 3,200 birds.

Marshalla said this property was the top harvest spot for Region 2, according to the latest available data. It typically gets a lot of hunting pressure, but Des Plaines continues to produce good results for hunters.

To hunt the first five days of the season, hunters must apply in advance and obtain a site permit through a lottery pick. However, there is standby hunting available to fill no-show spots, which gives opportunities to those not drawn for a regular permit. After the first five days, hunting is available on a first-come, first-served basis until the property reaches its hunter quota for the day.

No. 6 or smaller steel or other non-toxic shot is required and hunters must hunt within 10 feet of marked locations. A free site permit must be displayed in the windshield of a hunter's vehicle.

The Des Plaines FWA is located near Wilmington and about 55 miles southwest of Chicago. More information on hunting at the property may be obtained by calling (815) 423-5326. The site office is located at 24621 North River Road.

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