The season we've all been waiting for is at hand! Here's what you can expect when you hit Oklahoma's dove fields on opening day. (September 2007)
Photo by Larry Ditto.
In light of the rapid approach of dove season, it strikes me that three colors matter most to the legions of Oklahoma wingshooters going afield on opening day: green, brown and gray.
Green -- for lush vegetation that provides for suitable nesting conditions in the spring and early summer, not to mention the agricultural and native plant growth that will come into play a bit later down the road.
Brown -- for the parched effect that the Sooner landscape takes on by the end of most summers, when a lot of vegetation turns a shade of brown. Doves swoop in to feed on wheat stubblefields, burnt-gold milo plots, crisping sunflowers or croton, and, of course, the bare banks of dwindling waterholes.
And gray -- the color of the rocketing winged ghosts themselves, here one moment, gone the next amid a fusillade of shotgun pellets fired by a row of dove hunters left wondering yet again how they all could have missed these aerial acrobats going Mach 1.
Early on, the outlook for all three colors -- the green of late spring and early summer, the potential for a good year of browning dove food, and the possibility of a good crop of gray mourning doves -- looked good. In fact, as this is written, the state of Oklahoma is awash in green. In addition to the lush green vegetation that dots the state, the Oklahoma map is also filled with the green of flood warnings as another round of heavy rain and thunderstorms aims to make the drought of the last couple of years a distant memory.
"Yes, sir," said Alan Peoples, wildlife chief for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, "the rains have helped a bunch. We're finally out of the drought."
As of press time, rains had come to most areas of the state, and Peoples expressed concern mainly for one region of Oklahoma. "In the northwestern part of state, we haven't had those run-off-type rains that fill all of the ponds back up," he said. "A lot of waterholes out there that went dry and are still dry because of the sandy soil types of land there -- it takes a pretty good rain to fill them up."
However, the statewide bottom line is that the vegetation is good, and looking better all the time as precious raindrops keep falling. "Vegetation-wise, we're great," Peoples agreed.
But while rain is good for the Sooner State landscape, there can be too much of a good thing, according to Mike O'Meilia, migratory game bird biologist for the ODWC. "Conditions are at a point in time," he said, "so if a dove nests in location x and has to survive through a big thunderstorm, it obviously has some effect on them."
Even so, the ODWC biologist doesn't lose much sleep worrying about dove futures in most springs. "That's not something that I worry a lot about unless we have a lot of windy, stormy weather in May and June, when their first nesting attempts occur," he said. "If that occurs, then it has an effect."
Why? Because violent thunderstorms, strong straight-line winds, hail, and -- heaven forbid -- tornadoes all do a number on dove nests and newly hatched young. And not a good number, either.
With much of the state waterlogged and dove nests ready to hatch out at press time, O'Meilia had a prescription for a bumper crop of doves. "At this stage, I'd take a dry, normal, non-stormy spring," he said. "I'd probably take that over a wet stormy one."
Whatever the weather, there is one thing that O'Meilia's pretty sure of: The hunting's likely to be good in the Sooner State this month. "Oklahoma is still one of the best dove hunting states out there," he asserted.
Saying a hearty "amen" to that are the state's legions of dove hunters, a group that numbers 50,000 to 60,000 according to federal numbers, and 75,000 strong in state estimates.
Of course, to a great majority of those wingshooters -- whom O'Meilia dutifully reminds to get HIP certification along with the hunting license -- dove season is a relatively short affair compared to what the law and the calendar will allow for. "The first two weekends of the season is when most of our dove hunting takes place," O'Meilia said. "After the first half of September, there are some diehard dove hunters out there; I'm one of them. But after the first two weekends have come and gone, you can have some of these places pretty much to yourself -- and you can have some fabulous shooting."
O'Meilia's boss agreed. "The last 10 years or so that's been the status quo," said Alan Peoples. "Ninety percent of our dove hunting occurs that first week or so. I call it the 'opening-day syndrome.'"
Hunters do indeed like to get out there on opening day, but, Peoples added, the season's first cold front inevitably comes through sometime shortly before or after the dove season opener. When that happens, it chases many of the state's native birds south -- which is why many hunters are done for the year by Sept. 15.
However, those willing to keep their scatterguns and binoculars out a little longer will find ample reason to do so -- partly because of Oklahoma's location in the Central Plains. "Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas produce more doves than any other state in the nation," O'Meilia said. "There's certainly nothing wrong with Oklahoma being to the south of them. If you'll check the local food patches after the first half of September, you can pretty well bet that if there's food, there will be migrants on them."
Especially along and to the west of Interstate 35, the biologist suggested. He pointed out that most of the state's best wingshooting occurs to the west of that asphalt line splitting the state in half. But keep in mind that it's the site of most of the state's better shooting -- not all of it.
"I grew up in Tulsa," offered O'Meilia, "and you can have some fabulous dove hunting in the northeastern part of the state. There is a good agricultural base in that part of the world, so there are enough places where land use can provide some pretty good dove hunting fields."
THEY GOTTA EAT
One thing's true in Oklahoma, east, west, north and south, year in and year out: Our best dove hunting revolves around finding the best concentration of roosting, feeding, and watering sites in proximity to one another. In particular that goes for discovering the local mourning dove chow hall, of which there are two primary types: native seed-bea
ring plants and harvested agricultural fields.
"Land-use and cropping patterns can have a big impact on dove hunting," O'Meilia explained. "Crop patterns are very dynamic, and there are a lot of things in the eastern part of the state that are going toward things that aren't good for migratory game birds." (A primary factor in reducing the region's dove forage is the disappearance sorghum farming, which has given way to the cultivation of other crops and the conversion of agricultural acreage to pasturage.)
"Cropping patterns affect wintering mallards and migrating doves," O'Meilia said. "It can have a huge impact on what goes on. If all the hot foods go out the door and all you've got left is clean, grazed pastures and hay crops, the wildlife will suffer accordingly."
What are those hot food sources going to be? For sure, they'll include agricultural food staples like wheat stubble, especially early in the season, along with sorghum (also known as either "milo" or "maize") and corn. That crop might raise an eyebrow or two, in O'Meilia's view.
"Doves will eat whole corn," he said. "Some people don't believe that. Now, keep in mind that corn is not all that common a crop here. But we do have pockets of it being grown."
And it's all but certain that more and more corn is going to be raised around here -- because, thanks to the high price of gasoline, alternative fuel production is on the rise, and ethanol distillation needs corn. But by no means limit your search for feeding doves to agricultural crop fields. The state's dove population sure doesn't limit itself to such places.
"A good native sunflower patch," O'Meilia said. "You can't beat that; I'd say that universally, that's probably the best dove feeding area. Sunflowers are a weather-dependent thing, and sometimes they're ready early, sometimes they're ready late, depending on the weather." Peoples added that croton in its various types is another of the top dove food sources growing in Oklahoma, although again, one that's somewhat tied to the weather.
"In Oklahoma there are tradeoffs," he explained. "If we have ample rain in the spring, we will have a good sunflower crop. But if we have droughty conditions in the spring, the sunflowers don't seem to do as well, but the various kinds of croton do well. I guess it's kind of a Catch-22 thing."
But not for hunters willing to do their scouting homework in order to find out where the doves are feeding before a particular hunt -- even down to the flight paths into and out of a field and the preferred landing and feeding areas of that particular site. "Look for a good mixture of native seed-producing plants like croton, grasses and sunflowers," O'Meilia advised. When you find those, it's probably a good place.
"Now, you certainly don't want a site with a lot of ground cover," he added. "You're generally looking for something in the neighborhood of 25 percent open ground, although the best is up around 50 percent. Remember, doves aren't built for cruising around on the ground."
Those percentages of open ground are also good to remember when looking for a good spot for a waterhole shoot. "When you go farther west, waterholes become more important," O'Meilia said. "The sheer amount of dove usage and the fact there is less water out in that country mean that we can have fabulous waterhole shoots. I also know folks in the east that do it. But you have to do your homework."
THE BOTTOM LINE
OK -- enough of the biology talk! What's the bottom line on what Oklahoma dove shooters can expect this season?
"I've been out the last couple of weeks, and while we're still getting a lot of our breeding birds into the state, I saw huge numbers of doves yesterday," O'Meilia said. "Just about everywhere they are well into nesting courtship, rearing of young, et cetera."
Of course, despite supportive nesting conditions, a lot of things still need to happen before a great hunting season can unfold. "I tell people that I like going into the opener with it hotter-than-Hades hot and dry in August and September," O'Meilia remarked. "If we've had good production prior to that -- production is the engine that drives everything -- then that's a recipe for a great dove season."
It appears as if the production aspect of that recipe is a done deal around much of Oklahoma, and that should mean plenty of smiles, a lot of empty shotgun-shell hulls and hefty game bird vests on the backs of hunters this September. "If what I've seen the last couple of weeks is indicative of what we can expect, it could be a great year," O'Meilia said.
But then, what would you expect -- as Oklahoma celebrates its centennial year -- from one of the nation's premier dove hunting states?
CHANGE IN DOVE REGS
For as long as most mourning dove hunters (myself included) can remember, the schedule for the Sooner State's fall season has been etched in stone. This year, however, big change will greet Oklahoma's wingshooters, according to ODWC wildlife chief Alan Peoples.
"Historically, Oklahoma has had one dove season running from Sept. 1 to Oct. 30 with a 15 dove per day bag limit," he stated. Most of the state will stay that way, he went on to say, with a 60-day season, a daily bag limit of 15 doves, and a possession limit of 30 after the first day, but that's won't be true all over.
"This year we passed a rule where we will have two dove hunting zones," he said. "The new zone is in the extreme southwestern part of the state. Creating that zone will give us additional days, but it will reduce the bag limit."
Specifically, Peoples said, a small portion of the southwestern part of the state along the Red River will increase to a 70-day season with the dates running from Sept. 1 through Oct. 30, and from Dec. 26 through Jan. 4.
Gray -- the color of the rocketing winged ghosts themselves, here one moment, gone the next amid a fusillade of shotgun pellets.
At the same time, the daily bag limit will be decreased to 12 and the possession limit will be decreased to 24 after the first day. "The additional days are around the Christmas and New Year's holiday period," Peoples said. "In that area of the state, the doves stay there year 'round."
"This is just another added hunting opportunity. In a year when the quail aren't doing too good, but the kids are at home for the holidays, hunters can go down there, get in the mesquites and bag some doves."
EURASIAN COLLARED DOVES
For years, Oklahoma's dove population was basically unvarying in makeup: locally raised mourning doves supplemented by "Kansas birds" migrating southward as fall cold fronts came and went. Today, however, it isn't out of the realm of possibility to see three different dove species on any given hunt.
Mourning doves still make up the bulk of the state's harvest each year, but white-winged doves are expanding their
range northward throughout the state of Texas every year. And with whitewings becoming more prevalent near the Lone Star State's side of the Red River, Oklahoma hunters shouldn't be surprised to see the doves on the Sooner side as well.
Nor should they be afraid to fire a salvo at these bigger, slower doves featuring the white wing-patch; their harvest is allowed for in the Oklahoma daily dove hunting bag limit.
And don't be surprised to see a Eurasian collared dove in the Sooner State. A good bit bigger than a mourning dove, this exotic bird was native to the Indian subcontinent but began appearing in Europe in the 1900s. Brought to the Americas -- Nassau, to be exact -- in the early 1970s to replace the ringed turtledove, some made their way to Florida and began a westward expansion.
Today, the pale-gray Eurasian collared dove -- featuring a black collar around the back and side of the neck, dark primary feathers, a collar with a white upper border, and a long, square tail -- is found in Texas and Oklahoma. According to Alan Peoples, these exotic doves are included in the state's regular bag limit too.
Data I found about the birds on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Web site indicate that the birds are actually found now as far north as Wisconsin, portions of Canada, and even the Arctic Circle.
"'ECs,' as we call them, are normally an urban bird and don't stray far from town," Peoples said. But these exotic doves are also affecting the state's mourning dove population, albeit in a roundabout way. How? Simple -- look up into the trees and you'll see.
"I live in a little town up northwest of the Oklahoma City area," Peoples said. "I have mulberry trees in my yard, and for several years we had mourning doves nesting there. But the last couple of years, the ECs have moved in. They are very aggressive, and have chased the mourning doves away. Now they are nesting in those mulberry trees."
What can a hunter do to help control Eurasian collared doves? Just shoot them when you get a chance in the field, add them to your bag limit -- and then roast 'em on the barbecue grill!
Find more about Oklahoma fishing and hunting at: OklahomaGameandFish.com