No better camaraderie will be found than that offered by an opening-day dove hunt in the Deep South. Let's look at what one is like and the birds that make it possible. (September 2008)
In Mississippi, we celebrate September and the onset of the harvest season in a special way: with action-packed dove shoots. While Labor Day and weekend football games may get us in the mood, nothing says, "fall" in the Magnolia State quite like the opening day of dove season.
A hay bale for cover and plenty of shotgun shells make for a great afternoon on the dove field.
Photo by Cliff Covington.
Dove hunting is a game in which fast flying doves test our wingshooting skills. But a Mississippi dove shoot is actually much more than just a hunt -- it's a social event we enjoy with our family, friends, and neighbors.
Many of the most fanatical dove-field shooters are guys that may not hunt any other time during the year. Yet they show up for this annual social event that is as much a tradition as fireworks on the 4th of July.
Landowners take great pride in preparing and managing dove fields for these social gatherings. Oftentimes, local bragging rights for the entire year are on the line. And while few remember the final score of last year's Super Bowl, every dove hunter in the county can tell you who had the hottest field the previous season -- whether fortunate enough to get an invitation to hunt there or not.
KNOW THE GAME
In order to gain a thorough understanding of what makes up a successful dove field, it may be helpful to know a little more about this celebrated quarry.
The mourning dove is the single most popular game bird in the country. In Mississippi, the annual dove harvest is also greater than that of any other game bird species. Only the squirrel outranks it as the most hunted small game species. The dove's popularity among hunters is due primarily to its quick flight, its erratic movements, and its quality as table fare.
According to Scott Baker, wildlife biologist with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, just over 65,000 hunters took part in the dove season in the Magnolia State last year. During the three separate seasons that ran from September through mid-January, hunters harvested more than 1.4 million birds. Spending just three to four days afield on average, dove hunters in Mississippi experienced a 90 percent success rate and bagged an average of 6.5 birds per day.
Though mourning doves are migratory birds whose range extends from Alaska to South America, some stay in Mississippi year 'round. Whether or not they migrate depends heavily on their habitat and food needs being met, and on the severity of the weather in early winter.
Mourning doves have a very short lifespan -- not much longer than a year on average. The mortality rate for first-year doves is around 70 percent, while adults have an average mortality rate of around 55 percent. Because of high mortality, most doves not harvested by hunters die over the course of the winter from predation or other causes.
"Hunters can annually harvest more than 15 percent of the mourning doves in the fall hunting seasons without impacting the population as a whole," the MDWFP's Baker explained.
In Mississippi, roosting sites for doves are usually not a problem. Doves prefer trees or tall shrubs at an average height of 15 feet from the ground. A good roosting site is one that provides protection from predators, as well as cover from the sun in summer months and cold in the winter. Coniferous trees are preferred roosting sites, since they offer cover all year long.
Doves have four basic habitat requirements; food, water, cover and grit. When planning a field for mourning doves, select a location that meets each of these needs. Doves travel for food, but prefer forage sources that are nearby.
EURASIAN COLLARED DOVES
When most of us think about dove hunting, we naturally envision fast-flying mourning doves darting and diving in the sky overhead. However, in recent years a new species of dove has appeared over dove fields across the Magnolia State. This new bird on the block is the Eurasian collared dove.
Closely resembling a pigeon, the Eurasian collared dove can easily be differentiated from the mourning dove. These "illegal immigrants" are considerably larger and slower-flying than our native doves. In addition, they exhibit a prominent black collar with a white upper band around the neck. The collared dove also has a squared tail, which is dramatically different from the sharp tail of the mourning dove.
Introduced into the United States by accident when mistakenly imported as similarly marked ringed turtledoves, these non-native birds have since spread across the Southeast, including every county in Mississippi. Fortunately, the Eurasian doves do not appear to have made a negative impact on mourning dove populations. However, scientists continue to monitor these birds to ensure that they don't begin to compete with our native dove population.
"Since Eurasian collared doves are not considered a native game species, there is no season or bag limit," said Baker. "This is great news for Mississippi dove hunters, since collared doves are good to eat. In fact, it is almost impossible to taste the difference between collared doves and mourning doves."
SELECTING A DOVE FIELD
When selecting a dove field, three primary factors that should be taken into account: size, location, and soil type.
While most of us have hunted doves in fields ranging from just a few to several hundred acres, larger dove fields offer far more disadvantages than advantages. A large field requires a greater number of hunters to keep the birds flying. Most large fields also lack adequate cover for the hunters, allowing doves to light in the middle of the field, well out of gun range. It only takes a dove a few minutes to fill its crop with seed and return to a resting site to digest the food. You can be assured that such a bird will be in no hurry to go airborne and offer a hunter a passing shot.
Some of the better dove fields are in the 10- to 40-acre range. These smaller areas require fewer shooters to keep the birds flying. And even if you have a large party of hunters, small fields can still be your best bet. Several small fields scattered throughout an area provide better hunting than will one large field.
The location of your dove field is very important. Doves prefer to feed and drink as close to their roost as possible. The perfect dove field should be located adjacent or cl
ose to roost trees and offer a good source of water in the form of a stock pond or small stream.
The most important consideration in planning a dove field is soil type. It can vary from clay to sandy, but it must be well drained. A soil test helps you determine what nutrients may be lacking for the particular crop you plan to grow. Soil sampling kits are available at your local Extension Service office. Apply lime and fertilizer at the rates recommended by the soil test results. Keep in mind that poor soil fertility equals poor yields, and that your primary objective in planting a dove field is to produce high seed yields.
WHAT TO PLANT
Although doves feed on a variety of different seeds, a few stand out above the rest. Some are the result of harvesting a crop; others must be planted and managed specifically for doves; still others simply need a little manipulation.
Corn, soybeans, and milo are three common row crops grown in Mississippi that fall into the first category. However, unless you're a close friend of a farmer who just happens to be harvesting one of those crops, you're out of luck.
Some of the better representatives of the second category -- species planted specifically for doves -- include Peredovik sunflower, dove proso millet, and browntop millet.
Peredovik or black oil sunflower (often referred to as the "ice cream" of dove foods) is one of the best plants for attracting the birds, but it requires considerably more effort to establish and maintain than do some other crops. The high cost of seed, and of herbicides to control weeds, and depredation by deer are just a couple of the negative aspects of Peredovik sunflower.
Browntop millet and dove proso millet are easier picks for a dove field. While both types of millet adapt to most soil types, browntop tolerates soil acidity and drought better than does dove proso. In addition, browntop seed persists on the seed head for a long period of time, so you can plant all your fields at the same time and delay mowing if you want to use a specific field for later-season hunts.
Never look a gift horse in the mouth, the old saying goes. Such is the case with native vegetation. Native plants such as goatweed, crabgrass and barnyard grass shouldn't be overlooked. With a little manipulation, these natives can produce excellent dove fields.
Haying or mowing and burning will work best on grass fields. However, mowing alone can be effective in manipulating goatweed fields. And the best part of all is that you have very little expense involved in manipulating native vegetation.
Producing an abundance of seed won't guarantee you will have a successful dove field. Other factors must also be taken into consideration. For example, the seed in the field must be easily accessible to the doves.
Doves prefer to feed on the ground in light cover. Because they have weak feet, doves seldom scratch for food but instead seek out open areas in which the ground is clean. Therefore, seed must be exposed or found among very light ground litter.
Finally, a successful dove field should be in an area known to be used by doves. Quite often a well-prepared field is little used by doves simply because it's in the wrong area.
All that said, most of us don't have the option of planning, planting and maintaining our own dove field. But, keeping all this information in mind can be of benefit when you're picking out a pay-to-shoot or public field on which to spend your time.
PAY ATTENTION TO DETAIL
There seems to be one in every dove field. You know the kind -- the guy who always seems to be in the right place every time. You're unable to buy a bird; he enjoys shotgun action so fast and furious that he has to take a break just to let his gun barrel cool down. Before you have a matching pair of birds in your game bag, he's busy gathering up his gear and heading for home with a limit of doves. Is it dumb luck, or does he know something that the rest of us don't?
In southwest Mississippi the aforementioned hunter just might be veterinarian Dr. Eddie Lipscomb. "Doc," as he's better known in these parts, can shoot a limit of doves faster than anyone else I know. After a little coercion, I was finally able to extract a few of the secrets to his success.
"The average dove hunter rarely pays enough attention to detail," offered the self-proclaimed dove addict from Port Gibson, who believes that doves home in on specific topographic features in every field. "There are always certain objects or conditions that draw birds to specific locations in a particular dove field. It may be a small pond, a powerline, a clump of trees, a small opening in the tree line, or even a change in the lay of the land. Every dove field has certain characteristics in specific locations that naturally attract incoming birds. The key is to set up within shotgun range of these locations.
"Remaining undetected is just as important as finding the best location in the field," Lipscomb continued. "The best camouflage money can buy is worthless if you can't stay still. I try to remain perfectly motionless until the birds get into range. I also like to use a small stick-up ground blind and natural vegetation to help break up my outline and keep my position undetected by incoming doves."
Another integral part of Lipscomb's dove killing arsenal is his canine companion, a 15-year-old snow-white Eskimo Spitz named Pistol. "I wouldn't think about going dove hunting without Pistol," the hunter emphasized. "He is one dove-finding machine. For every dozen birds that go into my game bag, Pistol is responsible for finding at least three or four of them, and in some of the worst conditions possible. A good dog is invaluable when it comes to locating downed birds in thick cover."
Like most successful dove hunters, Lipscomb isn't necessarily the greatest wingshooter in the world. However, he more than makes up for the occasional missed shot through preparation and planning, and by applying the right tactics in the dove field.
PUBLIC DOVE HUNTS
The offerings are many when it comes to public access to dove fields in the Magnolia State. While top-quality dove fields are available at a number of state wildlife management areas, numerous others can be found on private land made accessible to the public through the Private Land Dove Field Program initiated by the MDWFP in 2003.
According to Scott Baker, many of the state's WMAs had successful dove hunts during the 2006-07 season. These same tracts once again will offer dove hunts to the general public on a first-come, first-served basis. A few of the more popular WMAs offering dove hunts this year are Mahannah, Leroy Percy, Shipland, Divide/Canal Section, Hell Creek and Black Prairie. Baker suggested that dove hunters keep watch on the MDWFP Web site as the season approaches for additional information on which WMAs have fields ready. The site is a www.mdwfp.com. It also is advisable to call the individual WMA area managers to find out about the level of bi
rd activity in the fields as the season approaches.
The Private Land Dove Field Program is an excellent example of what can be accomplished by the MDWFP and private landowners working together with a common goal in mind. The popularity of this program has increased dramatically among dove hunters since its inception. These dove fields are strategically placed in every section of the state in an effort to increase hunter participation.
Multiple hunting opportunities are offered to hunters through three types of permits that can be purchased. These can be for one location or all the fields throughout the season. The cost of the permits vary by site, depending on the crop grown, the level of management, and the number of hunters the field can safely handle.
The MDWFP handles the permit sales and oversees the entire hunt for each location. Hunting is only allowed on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays after 12:00 noon, and only during the first two dove seasons. Once again, Baker suggested that you check out the MDWFP Web site for listings of the hunts available through this program.