Hot Hunts For Southern Plains Doves

Hot Hunts For Southern Plains Doves

Clean your shotguns and load up on ammo! Dove season's about to begin in Kansas and Nebraska. (September 2008)

Why not try jump-shooting for doves by walking shelterbelt edges in Kansas and Nebraska? That's how Wayne Williams collected these birds!
Photo courtesy of Wayne Williams.

Researching this story reminded me once again of how interesting covering hunting and fishing can be. Many times over the years, interviews with state and federal fish and wildlife managers have led me into areas I never expected, with newsy information that proved surprising here and, we hope, to readers.

I learned some things about the current state of dove hunting in the southern region of the Great Plains, and the lessons are both interesting and exciting. I learned, for example, that Nebraska's dove hunting might just be one of the state's most enjoyable, yet underexploited, resources.

Personal experience suggests that Kansas can boast pretty much the same thing.

I also learned about an exotic species -- some understandably term it "invasive" -- that has spread like a wind-fed tallgrass prairie fire across not just the Great Plains but North America as well. Chances are you're going to bag some of them this season, and you might wonder -- even worry -- about their impact on our dynamic mourning dove resource.

Don't. You'll learn why later.

For now, know that Nebraska and Kansas are preparing for another "typical" dove season. That means you should expect to find plenty of birds unless an early cold front stirs things up before the traditional Sept. 1 opener.

The biologists with whom I spoke in both states suggested that dove numbers across the southern Great Plains have been, are now, and should continue to be stable.

"Our doves are doing pretty well," said biologist Helen Hands, who works for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks at Cheyenne Bottoms, one of the region's places of pilgrimage for the waterfowler. "In the past 10 to 20 years, if there has been any decline at all, it's been in eastern Kansas. Our birds in the central and western parts of the state are doing well."

To the north, in Nebraska, biologist Jeff Lusk echoes Hands. "Our dove populations are fairly steady," Lusk stated. "We haven't identified any trends in terms of numbers changing very much at all."

That's really good to hear when you consider the numbers. Lusk said that Nebraska sees about one-sixth the number of dove hunters as it does pheasant hunters, but each group harvests about the same number of birds -- upwards of a quarter-million every season!

"We definitely have a healthy population of doves, but we don't see as many hunters taking advantage of it," he said. "We definitely offer some outstanding dove hunting."

Kansas does, too. Personal experience taught me that many years ago. My late, dear friend Ralph Schlagel invited me to join his friends and family for their traditional open-morning shoot, and I learned quickly about the rites of Sept. 1 in the Sunflower State.

In some places, the first weekend of November is revered because prairie chicken season opens. Chicken shoots in Butler and other Kansas counties are as much social events as they are great hunts. The same can be said in north-central and southwestern Kansas a week later, which is the traditional pheasant opener.

But even those wingshooters likely kick things off in a grand way Sept. 1 when dove season opens. It's the earliest wingshooting season in the Great Plains. And if you've never experienced it, you need to -- soon!

You'll find that the Kansas and Nebraska fish and game Web sites (Internet addresses for which appear at the end of this story) provide information on locations for dove hunting. Lusk noted that some public areas around the state include ones that are managed specifically as dove fields.

If you've ever hunted them, you already know what that means: simply -- sunflowers.

Retired KDWP biologist Marvin Kraft, who oversaw the state's migratory bird programs for years, was the first to introduce me to the term "dove candy" as another name for sunflowers. Schlagel, who farmed land in southern Johnson County, used to plant sunflowers in and around cornfields, and he'd cut those fields sometime during the last 10 days of August.

He strategically left rows of tall corn standing to serve as natural camouflage for his opening-day hunters to crouch in. In many dove fields throughout Kansas and Nebraska, leaving some natural cover for the wingshooters' concealment is standard operating procedure.

You will find good dove hunting throughout the Sunflower State, as long as you stick to fields that have been planted in seed grain like corn. And, as noted, if you can find sunflowers, you'll definitely find doves.

Lusk pointed to the central and northeastern parts of Nebraska as harboring the best combination of doves and dove fields. But as is the case with its neighbor to the south, the Cornhusker State will offer some dove hunting pretty much statewide.

That being said, your success really will depend on the weather as much as the availability of cut fields of seed grains and/or sunflowers. Doves are migratory, and early cold fronts will move them south. Of course, that can be good news in some years. When those fronts stay north of Nebraska and Kansas, migrating doves will move in to supplement resident populations, and the numbers will swell. (Cont.)

You may be reading this and thinking, "You know, it seems like I see more doves these days than I ever remember. The numbers really have exploded."

There is no mistaking the fact that dove numbers are growing in both states, but you shouldn't attribute that to mourning doves. The biggest numbers gain are due to the appearance and adaptation of a totally difference species -- the Eurasian Collared Dove.

"Collared doves are moving west rather rapidly across Nebraska," Lusk said. "We have them pretty much statewide now, but so do many other states here and around the country."

Hands said the Eurasian birds actually arrived in the U.S. from the Bahamas. "The theory is that a pet store owner in the Bahamas had ordered ringed turtle doves for his business, and that all or some of the birds were collared doves," she said. "For whatever the

reason, those birds were released into the wild.

"We know that they arrived in Florida from the Bahamas in 1980, and they have now spread into New England ... and west to Washington state and British Columbia. And they're turning up everywhere in between."

Neither biologist suggested any need for concern that collared doves threaten mourning doves. "They are an invasive, non-native species for sure," Lusk said, "but they don't really compete that much with our mourning doves."

"They have a longer nesting season than mourning doves, and they start nesting earlier," Hands said, "but there is no evidence that they're out-competing mourning doves. They have been in Kansas for 10 years, and have been reported in every county. That being said, the fact that our mourning dove numbers remain consistent proves that the collared doves aren't a threat to them."

Mourning doves are migratory birds and, as such, are regulated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which sets season frameworks and regulations from which state agencies adopt annual seasons and hunting-regulation changes.

Collared doves, on the other hand, are considered exotics. And, as a result, they essentially aren't regulated at all.

Realistically, however, they are. Both Kansas and Nebraska consider them as part of the aggregate bag when it comes to daily limits. So this season, you'll be able to take 15 doves daily, but any collared doves you harvest -- either taken on purpose or killed by accident when mistaken for mourning doves -- count toward the limit.

"As much as anything, this approach helps us protect our mourning doves," Lusk said. "We don't include them because we're trying to regulate them. They're an invasive species."

And they're not necessarily easy to distinguish from mourning doves. If you spend a lot of time observing each, you're sure to be able to tell them apart. But they are roughly the same size and weight, with very similar wingspans.

Major differences? Collared doves are lighter in color. Their tails are mostly square, while mourning dove tails are pointed. And of course, the Eurasian visitor has a dark "collar" on its neck that mourning doves don't have. You just shouldn't be thinking about picking that out as birds put on their aerial acrobatic shows above you on opening morning.

A strong case can be made for ranking doves among the most challenging of all game bird species. The other species high on my list is the Great Plains' awesome prairie chicken, but for different reasons.

To me, prairie chickens offer an aerial silhouette that is very similar to a bobwhite quail -- but these birds are much, much larger. That tends to fool me when it comes to swinging and shooting on them, and I miss. A lot!

Doves, on the other hand, impress me as nature's air show. They climb, they dive, they dart, they twist, they turn -- and that's all in just one pass over a field! How many times have you been dead on a dove and, following through just as you ought, squeezed the trigger -- only to see that the dove you'd been aiming at was now totally somewhere else in the sky? It's no wonder that the makers of shotgun ammo adore mourning doves!

Another interesting fact I learned in researching this story is that biologists don't really have a good handle on dove dynamics. As a result, Hands and Lusk -- for their respective states -- are coordinating efforts to band doves annually as part of a much-larger national effort.

"Mourning doves really haven't been a hot topic of research," Hands said. "We have been banding birds here in Kansas for the past five years as part of an effort that, we hope, will give us a better index of population trends.

"We haven't had any trouble reaching our annual quote of birds for banding," Lusk said. We know that our resident population is doing well because of that."

Both biologists emphasized the importance of hunters obtaining, completing and filing the free HIP cards that provide harvest information on various migratory species. Banding quotas for the states are set based on the data gathered from the HIP cards, so it's important that you provide your input -- even if you only hunt the dove opener.

Hands said Kansas also is researching dove productivity in the state by collecting wings from hunters to develop age data on harvested doves. "This will help us develop an index to reproduction," she said. "We have been collecting wings for the past three years using local collection barrels, but that has become very labor intensive. This season, we are trying a pilot project to send out envelopes to hunters, and ask that they return wings to us for use in our research"

If you get an envelope, use it. As with any species of wild game that state agencies manage, research efforts like these help biologists learn more about species' current state: age-structures, reproductive success, overall population and trends toward growth or decline.

The biologists with whom I spoke in both Kansas and Nebraska suggested that dove numbers across the southern Great Plains have been, are now, and should continue to be stable.

All of these things lead to harvest strategies that are more accurate than ever, and they're only possible because hunters take the time to provide the input -- in this case, wings from harvest doves -- necessary to generate useful data.

The banding could prove more helpful than anyone realizes -- especially in areas like eastern Kansas that have changed dramatically over the past 20 or 30 years due to development. The reasons for that statement (which is mine, not a biologist's) might surprise you.

I suggested to Hands that "urban sprawl" in eastern Kansas had cost the region a lot of doves. She disagreed. "They are so adaptable," she said. "It's really hard to put a finger on what good dove habitat is. When things change, they'll either move on or adapt."

In the case of urban/suburban development swallowing up old farms, Hands suggests that mourning doves actually could benefit. "They could lose habitat in a given area," she said, "but they are not really susceptible to urban sprawl. They can actually do better when suburbs swallow up farm lands because they continue to find food, and they're not hunted any more because of the residential development."

Development has a more negative impact on accurate population counts than it does on the populations themselves. Hands mentioned that, and the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. For generations, biologists in dove country have used "call-counting" methods to survey populations. Not unlike the rural-mail-carrier surveys that you've read about when it comes to pheasants, "call counting" simply means that biologists travel around listening for mourning doves' distinctive call. Where is it easier to hear those calls? Butler Coun

ty or Sedgewick? Johnson County or Osage?

You get the picture: In developed or developing areas, it's simply more difficult than it's ever been to hear doves. And when hearing them is the primary method of counting them, accurate population numbers are virtually impossible to obtain.

There seems to be no need to worry about mourning dove numbers in Kansas or Nebraska. They are consistent and strong, and have been for the past few years. Harvest numbers remain consistent. There doesn't seem to be any negative impact on them from the fairly recent arrival of Eurasian Collared Doves.

This season is shaping up to be a good one, but the weather is always the bottom-line factor. If it's still nice and warm as you're reading this, you should find plenty of doves. If there's been an early cold front, it could be tougher than you expect.

In either case, concentrate your efforts on harvested seed grain fields where you can, and look for places with sunflowers. As you move west across Nebraska and Kansas, hunting will change to focus more on watering holes and roost trees.

Hands mentioned that many places in Kansas had so much water this time last year that the waterhole approach wasn't nearly as effective as it is in years with normal or below-average rainfall.

Lusk noted that Nebraska's Panhandle has continued to endure below-average conditions, so that should make hunting waterholes productive.

Arguably, the best grain-field hunting happens in the morning, when doves come off the roost. Action can be fast and furious as they leave the trees at first light and head toward fields to feed. After the initial flurry of action, birds can -- and often do -- fly all day. Action will be spotty as the day unfolds, but there will be doves around.

For your comfort, bring plenty of water or sports drink and stay hydrated. You also should use sunscreen on exposed skin, although long-sleeve lightweight camo will help shield you from the birds and the sun.

Finally, carry along, and be prepared to use, a good bug spray. In Kansas and Nebraska dove fields, Sept. 1 is often hot and muggy -- and buggy. Repellent will go a long way toward increasing your comfort by decreasing insect interest in your exposed skin. Or go high-tech and use one of those ThermaCELL mosquito repellent units -- they work!

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