Magnolia State Dove Options

Opening day of the dove season is fast approaching. Are you ready? Take a look at what's in store this year. (September 2007)

Mississippi hunters have averaged taking around a half-million mourning doves per year in the last half-decade.
Photo by Polly Dean.

The arrival of September signifies the opening of dove season for the majority of hunters in the Magnolia State; a few weeks later, the season begins for those seeking small, feathered game in the South Zone. Some lucky shooters will have an invitation in hand for a day of socializing, barbecue and camaraderie at one of the many private and much anticipated opening-day shoots held all across Mississippi. But those of us not attending a private dove shoot can still open the season at a number of public fields available in our state.


There we have the chance to hone shooting skills as we take aim at our tiny, skittering targets. But these fields also provide options for shooting later in the season as well. Many dove hunters hang up their shotguns after the opening-day festivities are behind them -- but doves are still to be had!

The data suggest that the number of dove hunters in Mississippi has declined in recent years, and that on average hunters spend less than three days each season pursuing the birds. This low average of days per season spent targeting doves can likely be attributed to the fact that the majority of hunters will only shoot during opening day, leaving just a handful of hunters in the field during the latter parts of the seasons.


Even though the total number of doves harvested has decreased in recent years, per-hunter harvest totals have declined only slightly. This simply indicates that the birds are there, and available to Mississippi hunters, but with less competition from fellow sportsmen.


A look at the data reveals that in the years 1999, 2000 and 2004, in excess of 600,000 mourning doves were harvested in the Magnolia State. In 2005, just over 455,000 birds were taken, with a few more than 24,000 hunters targeting the birds. That compares to 32,400 dove hunters in 2004. On average, a total of 19 birds were harvested per hunter in 2004 and 2005. But bear in mind that most shotgunners were afield only on opening day. Since it's a safe assumption that not everyone bagged a limit on opening day, the figures suggest that the hunters who came back later in the year upped the average substantially.

MOURNING DOVES

The distinct, plaintive woo-oo-oo-oo call of these birds accounts for their common name. Smaller than other game birds -- only 10 1/2 to 12 inches in length -- and quick and erratic in flight, these doves can prove to be challenging targets. They're light to medium brownish-gray in color with black-spotted wings and round heads; both sexes are very similar in appearance. The whistling of their wings as they take to the air gives them away.

Generally monogamous, doves produce several broods a year, almost always laying two eggs per clutch. Where it's warmer (as in the Southern states), they can produce up to six broods in one year. Both parents help with the incubation of the eggs and the raising of the "squabs" (the young of doves and pigeons).

Even though hunters on average take over 22 million doves per season nationwide, the species flourishes, its estimated population of 130 million barely affected by all the shooting. Their mortality rate is high -- sometimes up to 60 percent in a year --but frequent breeding keeps them plentiful.

The mourning dove occupies most possible habitats, including urban areas, farms, prairie, grassland and lightly wooded areas. They avoid swamps and thick forest and prefer areas of mixed habitat, such as small stands of trees for nesting and open areas to feed.

Doves don't scratch or forage for the seeds on which they almost exclusively feed, but eat those that are readily visible; they prefer millet, corn and sunflower. Doves naturally thrive in habitat altered by humans, and the introduction of crops attracts the birds.

EURASIAN COLLARED DOVES

Ordinarily, it's mourning doves that come to mind when the topic is dove hunting. But in the southern half of Mississippi, wingshooters are seeing more and more of another species, too: Eurasian collared doves.

Inadvertently introduced into the United States after initially being released into the Bahamas in the early 1970s (they were mistakenly brought in as ringed turtledoves, which are similar in appearance), these particular members of the subfamily Columbinae showed up a decade later in South Florida and have since spread throughout the Southeast, the Magnolia State included.

At 13 inches in length, the Eurasian collared dove is slightly larger and heavier than is the mourning dove. It has a pale-gray head and body with dark primaries on the wings, a squared tail, and a thin black collar with a white upper border on the neck. Its song is described as a coarse, rapidly delivered cooing in three parts, with the middle syllable much longer than the first and last.

The nature of the Eurasian collared dove's impact on the mourning dove population is not yet clear. The non-native dove appears to coexist readily with humans, often showing up at neighborhood bird feeders. At present it appears that the species' population needs not management but, rather, close monitoring. The collared dove is legal as quarry and, as an invasive species, does not count towards the state's bag limit.

DOVE MANAGEMENT

Long-term studies designed to gather data on the survival and harvest rates of doves nationwide are under way. Through the cooperation of 29 states, including Mississippi, the data collected through a banding program are used in determining future management and harvest strategies.

Nearly 100,000 doves were banded in the summers of 2003-05, 54,000 of those in the eastern region of the United States. In 2004, an additional reward band worth $100 was placed on one-third of the juvenile birds banded; the supplemental reward banding was repeated in 2005 and 2006.

Also contributing information vital for decision-making by dove managers is the Migratory Bird Harvest Information Program ("HIP"), which was established in 1992. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service works with the individual states in requiring migratory bird hunters to register annually in each state that they hunt. The states are responsible for collecting the name, address and date of birth of the hunter, as well as his or her level of success from the previous hunting season. The USFWS is then able to compile all the data to the end of achieving a better understanding of hunter activity and harvest totals.

PRIVATE LAND

DOVE FIELD PROGRAM

Of the dove fields accessible to the hunting public, some are in state wildlife management areas, while others will be found on private land opened to public use through the Private Land Dove Field Program. It has proved popular with dove hunters and has grown from one field in 2003 to 11 in 2006. The 11 counties listing a field in the program in 2006 were Simpson, Coahoma, Leflore, Humphreys, Kemper, Hinds, Grenada, Pike, Amite, Rankin and Noxubee.

Hunters wishing to shoot on these private plots can purchase one of three special permits offering multiple hunting opportunities throughout the season at either the same location or all of the locations. You can also pay a one-time fee to hunt any of the locations for a single day, based on availability. Rates at each location vary, depending on the crop grown, the intensity of the management and the number of hunters that the area can safely hold.

The same rules and regulations apply to all of these private dove fields, which are regulated by the state, not the landowners. Hunting is allowed only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays after 12:00 noon, and only during the first two dove seasons. Each of those seasons runs approximately three weeks.

Hunters shoot from designated stands assigned on the basis of their permit numbers on the first Saturday and Monday of the season. Thereafter it's first come, first served for all the designated stands.

No more than one adult hunter is allowed per stand, but one adult and one youth may occupy the same spot. Also, two youths under the direct supervision of a non-hunting adult may hunt from one stand. (Any hunter 16 and younger is considered a "youth.")

Basic rules of safety and etiquette apply: no littering, no alcohol consumption, no vehicles (including ATVs) except in designated parking areas, no shooting at low-flying birds, etc. And always pick up those used shot-shell hulls.

The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks' object in sponsoring the Private Land Dove Field Program is that of providing additional hunting opportunities for the state's hunters. Participating farmers are paid a per-acre amount based on the type of crop. Eligible fields will be at least 30 acres in size and planted with a grain both suitable for doves and compatible with the farm's operations -- corn or wheat, for example, as well as fields planted in milo, browntop millet or sunflowers. In most cases, such crops may be harvested and sold by the farmer, the department leasing only the dove-hunting rights during the first two seasons.

The MDWFP handles the reservations and manages the entire hunt process. The lease agreement releases the landowner from all liability while the field is under lease. The program has proven to be farmer-friendly, and past participants have been eager to renew their fields.

Mississippians in the southern half of the state especially benefit from the Private Land Dove Field Program. With leases offered in Pike and Amite counties dove, hunting is available in the deep southern part of the state. Additionally, Simpson County, located south-centrally in the state, and Hinds and Rankin counties, near Interstate 20, provide more options for downstate hunters.

WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREAS

Wildlife management areas provide additional options for dove hunters. A number of our state's WMAs allow hunting on fields planted for dove-attracting value. At least 14 WMAs provided dove hunting for the 2006-07 season.

The rules and regulations may vary on each of the WMAs, so be sure to check the MDWFP Web site for the dove fields available this season and for the regulations applicable to each. Wildlife Management Area User Permits are required (in addition to a regular license) to hunt these areas. Residents can obtain a WMA permit for $15 and permits for non-residents are $30.

District 1 in the upper northeast corner of the Magnolia State has hosted dove shoots on Black Prairie, Divide, Hell and Tuscumbia WMAs. Special Youth hunts are held at Black Prairie and Hell Creek on opening day as well.

Hamer and O'Keefe WMAs, in District 2 in the northwest corner of the state, also offer dove hunting during the season. Five WMAs within District 3 of the Mississippi Delta region offered dove hunting in the 2006 season. Leroy Percy and Mahannah WMAs offered opening weekend youth hunts, with Lake George, Shipland and Twin Oaks also providing dove fields.

In District 4, in the east-central part of the state, are the Nanih Waiha and Okatibbee WMAs, which were open to dove hunting in recent seasons. Further south, in District 5, Copiah WMA also provided dove fields last season. Look online at www.mdwfp. com, or call the WMAs in your area to see if they are open for dove hunting this coming season.

THE DETAILS

Dove season, which begins in early September, is divided into three seasons, each running for approximately three weeks. The state is divided into two zones, with the North Dove Zone's opening day traditionally falling on the first Saturday of the month and the South Zone's season beginning three weeks later. The South Zone is defined as lying south of U.S. Highway 84 and east of State Route 35; the rest of the state is designated to the North Zone.

The harvest limit is 15 mourning doves per day, with 30 birds allowed in possession.

Hunting doves is a great way to spend a fall or winter day outdoors and is great for introducing a youngster to wingshooting. Our state offers a variety of options for targeting the small, feathered prey, among those a number of youth-only dove shoots.

For more information on the MDWFP's Private Land Dove Field Program, contact Scott Baker at (601) 540-5783. For details on WMA hunting and applicable regulations, go online to www.mdwfp.com and click on the "Wildlife" tab at the top of the page; on the left side of the next page to appear, click the "Wildlife Management Areas" tab.

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