September 02, 2020
By Lynn Burkhead
In a year that many would just as soon forget, my dove season got off to a wild and wooly start yesterday afternoon on the Sept. 1 opener near my North Texas home.
After a soaking-wet day—a gully washer, in fact, as 4.39 inches of rain fell in my backyard—stormy conditions finally eased and turned into a fine drizzle. No problem, I thought, that’s what Rem Oil is made for as I exited the SUV and headed for a likely spot next to the remains of a harvested grain field.
My journey didn’t last long. Just five minutes after sitting down and loading up my battle-worn Remington 870, a new thunderstorm began to boil up on the radar. When a lightning bolt struck the ground a few miles away, I knew that opening day or not, there would be no limit for yours truly as I quickly hoofed it for vehicle.
That’s OK, though, because when things do dry out in the Lone Star State, the Texas dove season—the first split is Sept. 1-Nov. 12 in the North Zone, Sept. 1-Nov. 1 in the Central Zone, and Sept. 14-Nov. 1 in the South Zone—should produce some sizzling hot wing-shooting action.
"How is the season shaping up?" said Owen Fitzsimmons, the web-less migratory bird program leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. "Honestly, I’m even more positive now about season prospects than I was a month ago, and I was pretty high on those prospects even then."
"I think it’s going to be a promising season and the birds are acting pretty normal," he added. "Last year, the birds didn’t really group up until September, but this year, (they were doing that in August). Based on the habitat I’ve seen and the reports I’ve been getting, I’d say we’re looking at an A-minus kind of season across Texas.
2020 Texas Dove Forecast
About the only fly in the ointment was the opening-day monsoon in northern and central portions of the state, days after Hurricane Laura brought wet and windy conditions to the eastern portion of the state. Hopefully, with the full-bore opening barrage of the season expected to take place this Labor Day weekend as thousands of dove hunters swarm the Lone Star State’s dove fields, they’ll find drier weather and red-hot gun barrels.
While Fitzsimmons doesn’t have the information in hand that he usually does at this time of the year—TPWD was forced to cancel annual dove survey work in May and June because of the COVID-19 pandemic—he is still confident after early year rainfall led to prime nesting conditions in late spring and early summer.
"There were about 183 million mourning doves in the U.S. prior to last season," Fitzsimmons said. "That predicted abundance—which is what was used to set regulations for this year—found an estimate of about 120 to 125 million mourning doves in the Central Management Unit that Texas falls into."
In other words, there were plenty of mourning doves in Texas last fall and nothing less is expected this year.
"Our long term average is about 25 million breeding birds, and that number goes up with the fall migration," said Fitzsimmons. "Our best guess for what that number swells to during the fall is about 50 million mourning doves (in Texas)."
How many mourning doves are harvested in Texas each year? Out of the 7 million doves harvested in the state last fall, about 4.5 million or so of those birds were mourning doves.
"We usually make up about 1/3 of the national harvest of mourning doves," said Fitzsimmons. "For 2019, it was actually 33.9-percent. And along with about 1/3 of the national harvest, we also account for about 1/3 of the nation’s dove hunters too."
If the news about mourning doves is good, as it typically is, it might be even better for white-winged doves, a species that traditionally made itself at home in the Rio Grande Valley and deep South Texas.
Whitewings Expands North
But in recent years, whitewings have been expanding north across Texas with big populations now being found around San Antonio, Austin, Waco, Dallas/Fort Worth, and out in the Rolling Plains toward Abilene and Wichita Falls.
That’s not surprising to Fitzsimmons. In fact, he notes that whitewings are showing up in all kinds of new places as they push north out of traditional nesting areas in South Texas. That’s where the blockier and slower whitewings thrived for generations until land-use practices and a series of habitat-destroying freezes in the 1980s combined to set the wheels in motion for whitewing expansion up the state’s I-35 corridor.
The bottom line is this—whitewings are now an increasingly common sight across Texas, no matter what part of the state a hunter lives in.
"Our latest estimate in Texas is about 15 million whitewings," said Fitzsimmons. "And I think it is probably a little up from that, too. They continue to grow their population numbers and expand their range, it’s almost like we can’t survey them fast enough."
The TPWD biologist said that isn’t just a phenomenon peculiar to Texas. In fact, everywhere else the species is found across the southwestern U.S., the whitewing is pushing north to some degree. Fitzsimmons noted that a few whitewings have been seen in Nebraska this summer, as well as in southern Canada in recent years.
How many whitewings get harvested in Texas each year? Fitzsimmons said that the Harvest Information Program (HIP) survey puts the number at about 1.5 million, although he notes that TPWD’s own small game survey puts the number closer to 2 million. Either way, that’s as much as 85 to 90 percent of the white-winged dove harvest across the nation.
While the biggest numbers of that whitewing harvest come from South Texas, increasing numbers are being taken each year closer to the Red River too. In fact, the biologist notes that as many as 150,000 were taken last fall in the Rolling Plains and perhaps as many as 200,000 were bagged in North Texas.
While the white-tipped dove makes up a small portion of the annual dove harvest figures in the southern reaches of the state (two white-tips are allowed per day in the Texas daily bag limit of 15 doves), another bird likely to show up in a Texas dove hunter’s game vest is the Eurasian collared dove. And that’s even though the invasive bird doesn’t actually count against the state’s daily bag limit and can be taken in unlimited fashion.
"Our harvest estimate from last year was about 300,000 out of a loosely estimated population of about 5 million statewide," said Fitzsimmons of the invasive dove species.
"We don’t have a lot of data on them, since we don’t target that information in our surveys, but I get the feeling (from his own observations and talking to other hunters) that they are here where they are, that they are widely distributed across the state, (and) that they’re also not very dense in many locations."
Add all of this number crunching up, and the conclusion that a Lone Star State wingshooter is likely to come to is that early season rain or not, there’s plenty of incentive to go afield this fall.
And that’s no matter what the circumstances happen to be—a pandemic, a hurricane, or flooding rains on opening day—since there is rarely, if ever, a poor dove season anywhere across the vast Lone Star State.
"That’s really true, that there’s really no such thing as a bad dove hunting season here," agreed Fitzsimmons. "Whether you’re talking about the hunting from a statewide perspective or even from a national level of discussion, there’s no question that Texas is the king of dove hunting in the U.S. Nobody else even comes close."
Even when the opening day radar screen is lit up like a Christmas tree.