Magnolia State Dove Preview

Opening day of dove season in Mississippi is fast approaching. What are the prospects for this year's shoots? Let's have a closer look.

Photo by Mark Romanack

The first doves of the afternoon skidded and jerked over us in the cerulean blue sky like miniature fighter jets. Their twists and rolls emphasized the heavy wind that was blowing along the field.

Bennett Kirkpatrick shouldered his grandfather's 12 gauge, tracked, led and finally fired at one of the passing birds; it tumbled to the ground. The scene reinforced the idea that the silver-embossed scattergun passed down through the generations could still do its job.

"Good shooting!" hollered the guy at the next station. "You're going to keep it exciting for all of us."

Then, more doves quickly flashed by, but none of the eight shooters even got a chance to pull the trigger. The whole afternoon was filled with singles, twos and threes flying by -- never enough doves to provide what the guys considered truly good shooting. But there were birds sufficient in number to keep the hunters scattered around on their chairs and buckets awake and scanning for incoming targets.

"See how they zigzag across the sky?" Kirkpatrick said. "You have to plan when you're shooting doves. To hit them, you have to aim where they will be, not where they are."

For me, this first dove shoot was a near-perfect afternoon and a great learning experience. The weather was cool without being cold, and I had a willing teacher to explain the ins and outs of hunting these amazing fliers. Kirkpatrick, who had hunted doves for more than 40 years, detailed the basics of dove shooting in between shots, as we sat hidden in a clump of tall weeds.

I picked up pointers on the etiquette of shooting -- as when, for example, a dove on the wing is ceded to the next hunter. On the technical level, the challenge was how to figure out where to put shot to meet the rapidly flying birds.

Although these days I hunt doves, I still hit about one in six birds I shoot at. Even so, the dove's my favorite for wingshooting.

MOURNING DOVES

The mourning dove is small compared to a duck or a goose, and thus presents a tougher target. An average dove in Mississippi is about 10 1/2 inches long, and is weighed in ounces, not pounds. These gray-brown birds with black-spotted wings can be identified by their doleful cooing and the whistle of their wings as they take flight.

The mourning dove is the most hunted migratory bird in the United States, millions being killed across the country each year. Not only are doves the most hunted birds nationwide, but more doves are harvested annually than all other game birds combined as well.

Doves are also the most popular game birds in Mississippi. Surveys show that the average dove hunter spends 3 1/2 days in the field annually and takes 6 1/2 birds. If the average hunter is anything like the folks I've hunted with, it took about four boxes of shells to get those six birds. Obviously, dove hunters are a boon to the firearms and ammunition industries!

Although an estimated quarter-million doves are taken here in Mississippi each year, plenty of the birds survive to reproduce. An ambitious pair of doves -- which remain mated to each other until one dies -- can produce as many as six broods during the year. The nests are either in a clump of vegetation near the ground or in the branches of an evergreen tree. Most nests are built of a few sticks, are flimsy and hold two eggs per clutch. Male doves generally sit on the eggs during the day; the female takes over at night.

Both parents make and feed the young a substance called "pigeon milk," which is crshed seeds, berries and other gleanings broken down the adult bird's crops. Pigeon milk is more nutritious than cow or human milk and provides enough protein to enable the squabs (baby doves) to grow rapidly. Doves are ground feeders, eating a variety of seeds and berries they find in the field edges and yards they call home.

Almost all of the doves taken in our state are shot on opening weekend, even though there are three seasons spread over a quarter of the year. On opening weekend, many landowners hold annual dove shoots on their harvested fields. These are among the social highlights of the hunting season. Dozens of regular invitees wait in hopeful anticipation for the legions of birds to pass over and give them a chance to bring down some of these fleet-winged aerial acrobats.

Though doves are listed as a migratory species, most of the ones in Mississippi are homegrown homebodies. The weather here simply doesn't get cold enough to necessitate their migration. In the north and west, they have to head south to find unfrozen water, and so are considered migratory. This places them under many of the same federal regulations to which ducks and geese are subject.

STUDYING THE BIRDS

For the last three years biologists in the Southeast have been working together to find out more about these birds. An area-wide banding study currently under way aims to provide information on their habits. In 2003, a total of 25 states started banding doves, kicking off the first major research on the species in over two decades.

During the first year of the program, in July and August 2003, more than 1,000 doves were banded across the Magnolia State. Each leg tag carried a unique code number and a telephone number for hunters harvesting the birds to call at the National Bird Banding Laboratory. Each hunter who called with a leg band number got information about where the dove was banded. During the last two summers, additional birds were tagged.

This type of study can make a big impact on the number of doves available to hunt in years to come.

According to Scott Baker, migratory-bird program leader for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks the results of the banding survey will supplement the data amassed through the Harvest Information Program and provide insight into the movement and behavior of doves. The HIP is a federal program designed to track more thoroughly the harvest of all migratory birds.

"There are concerns that dove numbers are going down both from Mississippi hunters and across the nation," explained Baker, who's trained as a wildlife biologist. "The studies are providing mixed reports. There has been a downturn in dove numbers, but this is proving to be more habitat related than caused by overhunting."

Baker went on to explain that doves need broken habitat, a combination of field-edge rows, small blocks of ti

mber and places like ditch banks to make a living. Unfortunately for the birds, much of the land that used to be farmed is now planted in solid blocks of trees. Pine trees may provide a place to nest, but not much for doves to eat.

Even though dove numbers may be down, there are still a lot of doves available to hunt. About 60 percent of all doves die each year from many causes, including predators, droughts or late cold weather, and old age. Hunters actually don't make much of an impact on these short-lived birds.

NEW HUNTING GROUNDS

A major problem for many dove hunters these days is finding someplace at which to do some shooting. Many farms that used to be available for dove hunting are now leased to hunting clubs, and so are no longer open to the casual hunter. Other used-to-be good spots are now pine plantations.

The MDWFP has now started a program to keep dove hunting accessible to everyone. The plan is to lease suitable fields from farmers and landowners in each region of the state and manage them for legal dove hunts. A predetermined number of hunters can apply for permits to hunt during the first two seasons. The money collected is used to pay for the lease.

In 2004, the first field was leased; it was near Lackey in Monroe County. Permit holders were allowed to hunt on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday afternoons. Eighty permits were available at a cost of $50 each. Each permit allowed for an adult and two young hunters to shoot on the field. However, for each permit, no more than two of those folks (and only one adult) could use the permit at one time. That first lease proved successful, and additional pieces of land should be in the program this hunting season.

According to Baker, the MDWFP had up to five more landowners across the state interested in such arrangements for this season. For more information on these dove fields, check out the MDWFP Web site at

www.mdwfp.com and go to the "Hunting" page.

Although MDWFP personnel neither supervise the hunts nor assign shooting spots, Conservation Officers regularly check the fields. Each hunter of age must have a valid Mississippi hunting license that shows him or her to be HIP-certified.

HUNTING REGULATIONS

This year the daily limit of mourning doves is again 15 per person per day; the possession limit is 30. There's no limit on Eurasian collared doves that have invaded Mississippi and most of the Southeast after migrating over from the Bahamas. Collared doves are larger and lighter-colored than mourning doves and have a thin black band around their necks that looks like a collar.

Each hunter must remove his own doves from the field; his doves should be kept separated into the transport.

It is still illegal to hunt over feeders or baited fields. A field is considered to be baited for 10 days after all grain, salt or other feed not resulting from or a byproduct of normal agriculture practices has been removed. A field is not considered to be baited if the crop is grown for other wildlife, or if the goal is to harvest a crop. Property owners or hunters cannot return to add grain after the harvest.

THE HARVEST INFORMATION PROGRAM
Prior to 1992, game managers knew there were doves and other migratory birds being taken by hunters, but there was no way to measure any impact sportsmen were having on the bird populations. There were many questions, but no statistics for establishing trends. Without hard information, there was no solid science to back up management decisions.

To alleviate the problem, the United States Fish and Wildlife Agency set up the Harvest Information Program to provide wildlife biologists across the country with data about what was really happening to doves, ducks, geese, woodcock and other migratory game birds at the regional and national levels. The agency also supplied information on the number of hunters who went after these birds.

All hunters pursuing migratory birds are now required to fill out a questionnaire regarding which species they hunted and how many of each were taken during the prior season. In return, the participants receive a free HIP permit(which appears as HIP Certified on Mississippi's paper licenses), which is required for hunting the migrant bird species. The HIP survey is available wherever hunting licenses are sold. Be aware that each state maintains its own HIP registration. If you hunt migrants in another state, you have to be HIP certified there as well

Hunters are liable for hunting on a field legally defined as baited, whether or not they know the field was baited. If a Conservation Officer finds a hunter in a field that's deemed to be baited, the ticket goes to the hunter, not the landowner -- so be sure to ask the right questions. One dead giveaway is seeing grain on the ground that's different from what was grown in the field.

It's legal for hunters to give away doves they have taken, but the birds must be tagged with the name and address of the hunter. Each tag must be signed, and should indicate the date and total number of birds killed.

These free migratory game bird tags can be obtained from the state office. For tags write: MDWFP, Attention Migratory Game Bird Tags, 1505 Eastover Drive, Jackson, Mississippi 39211-6374.

YOUNGSTERS AND DOVES

Dove fields are great places to give a youngster that first hunting experience. Many of the great outdoor writers of years gone by, like Robert Ruark and Ernest Hemingway, recount tales of serving an apprenticeship by gathering doves for older hunters.

Time spent in a dove field teaches hunting manners, and these hunts are rarely boring if there's a more experienced shooter with tales to tell. Since all shots are directed at flying birds, there's little chance that a young participant will be mistaken for a dove.

For young hunters actually involved in the action, doves are also ideal. When the birds are flying, the action's pretty constant, so the short attention span of youth doesn't interfere with the fun. Additionally, the light loads used for wingshooting doves don't produce so much recoil as to make most kids "stock-shy."

That first dove brought down by a young hunter is a treasure long remembered, and provides a story to be retold for a lifetime -- no matter how many boxes of cartridges it takes to get the bird!

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