Photo by Polly Dean.
With Labor Day and cooler fall temperatures just around the corner, Peach State hunters are setting their sights on the opening of dove season. Dove hunting is a popular sport in Georgia, and researching places to hunt before the season can pay off on opening day.
Today, hunters need only go as far as their computers to access a mass of data on dove hunting. How to plant and prepare a dove field; public hunts; applying for quota hunts: You name it, it’s there on the Internet, now the go-to spot for hunters eager to take to the fields.
First, let’s take a look at how dove populations are faring statewide. A member of the pigeon family, the mourning dove is a year-round resident of Georgia. Each fall the population grows as migrants travel to the area from northern states. The dove is the Peach State’s most numerous and popular game bird and is hunted by more Georgians than any other game species except deer, with about 1.5 million birds harvested annually.
Following a nationwide trend, Georgia’s dove population is down from 20 to 30 years ago overall, but it has stabilized in the past decade. Wildlife managers gauge dove populations through “call count” surveys each spring. Coordinated nationally by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and in Georgia by the Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division, the counts are conducted along 22 routes in Georgia.
Each route is approximately 20 miles long and has stops for listening for doves cooing at one-mile intervals. Any birds that can be seen are also counted. The information is sent to the USFWS in Washington, D.C.; there, population estimates based on the surveys are compiled.
“The 20-to-30-year population trend in Georgia is declining slightly but we’re not sure why,” said Don McGowan, senior wildlife biologist with the WRD. “Doves are not real habitat-specific; they can use almost anything. So we’re not sure what is causing the decline.”
Compared with other game birds like bobwhite quail, mourning doves actually benefit from modern agricultural practices, and have adapted well to Georgia’s more-urbanized environment. Still, harvest rates have fallen off as the dove population has declined.
Georgia is currently one of 29 states participating in a banding study and a wing study, both of which aim to develop updated estimates of harvest rates and dove survival and reproduction rates. “Hopefully, in a year or two we’ll have a better picture of what’s going on,” McGowan noted.
Unlike other wildlife species, mourning doves have actually benefited from ongoing drought in the Peach State. Doves are not known for building sturdy nests, so thunderstorms, heavy rains and wind wreak havoc on the flimsy assemblages. According to Cornell University’s “All About Birds” Web site, female mourning doves stay at the nest while the male collects sticks. The male actually stands on the female’s back to give her nesting materials. (This may account for why the nests are so poorly built!)
Regardless, dry, calm weather benefits the survival rate of nests, so the drought did not negatively affect Georgia’s mourning dove population. Preliminary data from the 2007 nesting season indicated higher production than in previous years.
THE HUNTING SEASON
From a management perspective, conducting studies is the WRD’s primary activity. Since dove are considered a migratory species, most of these surveys fall under the purview of the USFWS. In states with a dove season, state wildlife agencies are permitted to set dates and bag limits within a framework provided by the USFWS. In addition to participating in the national banding and wing study, the WRD monitors dove harvest every three years through the small game survey.
“We are constantly reviewing harvest statistics and looking for trends that may stand out,” McGowan said.
The 2008 mourning dove season opens statewide on Saturday, Sept. 6, 2008, at noon, runs through Sept. 20, and reopens Oct. 4 to 13; the final dates are Nov. 27 through Jan. 10. 2009. As in recent years, the limit is 12 doves per day and 12 in possession.
Estimates for the number of dove hunters in the Peach State vary, depending on whom you ask. Based on responses to their Harvest Information Program survey, the USFWS estimates that 50,000 hunters are in the state. However, the WRD reckons that Georgia’s number of dove hunters is closer to 90,000.
“I would put more stock in the WRD survey because of how our harvest data is drawn,” McGowan offered. “There have been some issues with the Harvest Information Program in the past, and I think WRD’s survey samples are more accurate.”
WHERE TO HUNT
Regardless of how many hunters inhabit the Peach State, lots of them will be flocking to the fields on opening Saturday.
Most dove hunting takes place on private lands, but demand for more public dove fields is big, and growing. The WRD is looking into ways to create more hunting opportunities, especially near metropolitan Atlanta.
“Demand is huge in the metro Atlanta area,” McGowan confirmed, “and they’re willing to drive to find good dove hunting. They will drive out to Di-Lane Plantation and other places just for an opportunity to hunt doves. Thank goodness we’ve had some good hunts in recent years, with hunters getting to harvest eight to 10 doves each. They’re just ecstatic — but they also seem to just appreciate having a place to go.”
That Di-Lane Wildlife Management Area is well over 200 miles from Atlanta says a lot about the level of interest in finding public dove options!
The WRD operates approximately 37 dove fields each year around the state. Most of the public fields are found on state-operated WMAs or public fishing areas. Each year in mid-to-late summer, the WRD publishes a list of public dove fields in Georgia that are divided out by Game Management Regions.
The dove field forecast issued annually by the WRD not only lists dove fields and locations, but also lists the crops that were planted in the fields, the acreage of each and gives a hunting forecast for the field. The fields range in size from 10 acres at Mayhaw and Hart County WMAs to 100-plus-acre fields at Di-Lane WMA or Seller’s Do
ve Field in Appling County.
Region 1, in northwest Georgia, has public fields at Berry College, Crockford-Pigeon Mountain, J.L. Lester and Pine Log WMAs. There’s also a 7-acre field at McGraw Ford.
Region 2, in northeast Georgia, offers three public fields at Dawson Forest, Hart County and Wilson Shoals WMAs. Most of these fields are planted with browntop millet or wheat.
Region 3, headquartered in Thomson, has a total of 11 public fields, including the popular Di-Lane WMA and the Walton Public Dove Field.
Region 4, in the Fort Valley district, features six fields, including a 90-acre tract at Joe Kurz WMA and a 96-acre one at Clybel WMA.
Region 5, in southwest Georgia, has eight public fields that are planted with a combination of browntop millet, corn, and sorghum. The largest tract is the 50-acre Elmodel WMA field, followed by the 40-acre Hilliard Dove Field.
Region 6, in southeast Georgia, has three fields, including a popular one at Paradise PFA and the gigantic 140-acre field at Seller’s in Appling County.
Coastal Georgia’s Region 7 only has one field, at the Altamaha WMA.
The complete list of fields will be found on the WRD’s Web site,; you can also contact your local game management office to obtain a hardcopy edition.
One of the most popular hunts in the state takes place at the Walton Public Dove Field, right across from the WRD headquarters office in Social Circle, just east of Atlanta. The field was built in 1997, and the hunt has proven so popular in recent years that the WRD was forced to make it a quota hunt. The parent-child event takes place on the opening day of dove season. Since the season doesn’t open officially until noon, the event kicks off in the morning with a kids’ fishing event at the fish hatchery next door. Then, parents and children take to the dove field for some shooting. There’s also a cookout and a bunch of door-prize drawings.
Hunters interested in participating in the parent-child hunt need to apply between Aug. 1 and 15. Application information can be found listed in the Hunting Regulations booklet under the regulations for the Walton Dove Field.
“We’re working to standardize dove season quota hunts,” reported Don McGowan, “but we’re not quite there yet. In the future, hunters will be able to apply for dove quota hunts online just like they do for deer and turkey.”
TACTICS IN THE FIELD
Once you’ve found a field to hunt, it’s time to scout out the best place to set up. Longtime dove hunter and retired USFWS assistant director Don Pfitzer, of Lithonia, suggested arriving early enough to walk the field and take a look around. If there are signs of baiting, leave immediately; it’s not worth risking your reputation for a chance to take a few birds.
When satisfied that a field is legal, Pfitzer looks for a spot without too much thick, heavy vegetation. “I like an open field with an edge all the way around it,” he noted. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be flat. In fact, a little bit of rolling terrain is not bad at all. If it’s been cut and baled, that’s a good thing too.”
When scouting a field, look for places that offer temporary blinds — like a tree off to the side, or something you can stand against to stay hidden. “I usually look for an area that has a dead tree along the edge of the field,” Pfitzer offered. “If there’s not already someone there, then I’ll try to get that. It’s a great perch area for doves.”
Pfitzer’s final advice is to be an ethical dove hunter and respect other people in the field. “I’ve had people come up behind me and shoot over my head,” he said. “If you come up against folks like this, it’s time to move on!”