The Magnolia Dove Season

The Magnolia Dove Season

It is time to get set for fast and furious wingshooting on the state's dove fields. Let's see what the season holds in store this year.

By Jill J. Easton

Dozens - no, hundreds - of doves perched wing to wing on a dead tree west of a cut-over bean field near Sumrall. The birds looked like they were planning something: Heads together, they appeared to be chattering back and forth. Dozens more flew up and landed a few hundred yards away as we walked the perimeter of the field.

Three days later on opening morning of the hunting season at the same site, a scattering of doves took to the air and disappeared as our guns broke the quiet of dawn. During the next three hours, six hunters averaged only a dove apiece.

A severe thunderstorm had rolled through on the last day of August, and the wind was still whipping at gale force strength at dawn. The hundreds of birds of a few days earlier were scarcer than ticks on a turtle.

One week later, the sky was eye-aching blue and the wind had died. Doves flew first in small squads; then dozens at a time speckled the sky. This time five hunters took limits of the zigging birds within a few hours. As with most phenomenal, best-ever hunts, I was somewhere else on that day.

Hunters say many things about doves (mostly unprintable), but one sure thing is sure: Doves don't play by any rulebook. These birds fly like erratic, tailless kites and are often as difficult to locate as they are to shoot.

Even when the doves are flying in multitudes across an average hunter's field of fire, the dove-to-cartridge ratio is generally embarrassingly low. A dove's flight pattern is like no other bird's.

Photo by Walt Rhodes

Forget Labor Day or school openings. Fall officially begins in Mississippi with the opening of dove season. The first of September brings thousands of shooters into fields that are planted with sunflowers, milo or wheat, then either left standing or carefully harvested to keep things legal. Many of the opening day shooters are folks who don't venture out hunting another time during the year, yet they show up for these dove-field events that can be traditions which have spanned several generations.

After opening weekend, the big shoots are almost non-existent. Hunters become much more normal, with only a few folks blasting from cover, or on paid hunts featuring drawings to decide locations around a dove field. Jump-shooting doves or waiting for incoming birds around waterholes or graveling sites becomes the norm later in the season as well.

Doves, which are members of the pigeon family, are the most abundant game bird in America and the No. 3 most abundant bird species in the world. More than 2 million sportsmen harvest more than 41 million birds annually nationwide. These may sound like large numbers, but scientists estimate that another 165 to 207 million doves die each year from natural causes.

Mississippi is third among all states in the annual number of doves harvested, with 70 birds taken per square mile.

"Weather is all-important for doves," said Dave Godwin, the Small Game Program coordinator with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP). "Although predictions fluctuate, there is no reason to expect a big change in numbers from last year, unless we have extremely negative weather for the entire breeding season."

Doves in the southern half of the state can nest four or five times during the spring and summer, and at least three times in the north. So one or two episodes of bad rains or drought don't necessarily mean a bad hunting season.

For the last few years, the dove harvest has been down, but MDWFP officials believe this has more to do with the number of hunters than the number of doves. Ongoing research that started last year will provide help in dove management in the future.

For many years, doves have been one of those animals that were just there. For many sportsmen they provided a few days of shooting just before the real hunting of deer season began, and there were generally enough birds on cutover fields to provide that sport each year. But scientific management was pretty much a guess-and-grumble situation.

"Population data on doves in Mississippi and the whole Southeast Region hadn't been updated in many years. Small-game biologists and resource managers were concerned nationwide because there were huge information gaps," said Dr. Francisco Vilella, who works with the Biological Research Division of the United States Geologic Survey at Mississippi State University. "The number of doves harvested has declined over the past 10 years, but we didn't know if there were fewer dove hunters or fewer doves."

Most of the guesstimates were taken from information gathered each year during call-count-route treks around the state. The counts have been done each year since the 1960s, so there was standard information that stretched back nearly 40 years.

"When the dove coo is at the peak, observers travel pre-planned routes. Each group covers about 20 miles," said Godwin. "About every mile, at designated points, they stop and count coos.

"The teams also count birds flying up, or those visibly perched on wires as they drive between stopping points," he continued. "Using this standardized tool, it is possible to get a rough idea if the relative abundance of doves is up or down in the areas covered."

Two years ago, Dr. Vilella, working with students at Mississippi State and with support from the USGS, decided to get more-accurate and technical information on doves. He wanted to find out if changes in the state affected numbers and population density of birds. It was also hoped that the study could determine if hunting was having an impact on the number of birds.

Aerial photographs were available for the areas where the call counts were done that went back to the beginning of the counts.

"Using GIS (Global Information Systems), students compared the changes that had taken place in the landscape during the time frame," said Vilella. "We had a number of land cover types to look for - row crops, pine plantations, housing, orchards and new agriculture."

Comparing this with bag and harvest information, the call count and the maps, the students were able to set up a statistical model. This finally made it possible to compare changes in dove populations with changes in the landscape.

Last year they took the project one step further. A banding study was started at Hell Creek Wildlife Management Area, a 2,400-acre WMA in Union and Tippah counties near New Albany.

Since Hell Creek is composed primarily of agricultural fields, grasslands, pine plantations and small woodlots, it was a perfect place to study the effects of a variety of habitats on doves. During the first year, about a thousand doves were banded. This year the study is expanding to WMAs in other areas of the state, and other states will be participating as well.

Records are kept on each banded bird - age and sex of the bird and where it was released. Hunters who shoot banded birds are strongly encouraged to report the information by calling the number on the band. Band returns help plot dove movements and migration, reveal the survival rates and nesting success of doves around the state and tell wildlife personnel if certain areas are having problems. Information on dove population dynamics will be used to improve management.

Banding was done this year from April to July. The birds are captured in rectangular Kniffin funnel traps made out of mesh wire. A total of 1,017 doves were captured, banded and released at Hell Creek in 2002.

Doves were lured to the area with repeated feedings. After the birds became used to finding grain in the area, traps were put out. Each trap has two entrances that open inward, and once the birds are inside the hole narrows so they can't escape. According to Dr. Vilella, the traps are laid out within row crops.

Students monitor the traps frequently from a distance with binoculars. Since captured birds can't stand long exposure to the sun, they are released immediately after their gender and age have been determined and they've been weighed, measured and banded.

In addition to the banding, a few adult female doves were fitted with radio transmitters to collect information on nesting productivity and activity last summer. These tiny transmitters were fastened to the doves' skin with surgical-type cement. A small antenna then relayed a locator signal to field receiving units. Batteries in the transmitters last about two months, so these doves received their units right around breeding season. A few months later, the majority of the transmitters went silent and will have fallen off by opening day. These units were put in place at four or five locations around the state.

Transmitter data collected by students and scientists can answer questions about the success of nesting. Information about the number of nests that are destroyed by predators like possums and coons, the effect of bad weather on eggs and chicks, and deaths due to causes other than hunting can be discovered for various parts of the state.

Some changes are also coming to Mississippi dove fields from another direction. Are some of the doves you are seeing wearing fancier feathers? Have you started to hear pigeon-sounding coos mixed in with the notes of mourning doves? Are you seeing veritable dove wars going on around your bird feeder? If so, you could be witnessing the arrival of Eurasian collared doves.

These birds, somewhat larger than our traditional mourning doves, sport a thin black neck collar with a white upper band. Another way to pick out these birds is by their tails, which are squared and very different from the V-shaped tails of traditional doves.

Eurasian collared doves made it to the United States by a series of accidents, but it appears they are here to stay. About 30 years ago, some of the birds were imported to the Bahamas for pets. The collared doves had been mistaken for ringed turtledoves, which make good pets and provide tranquil cooing in captivity. It turned out that Eurasian doves don't take well to cages, and soon there were lots of free-ranging birds breeding on the Bahamas. Ten years later they appeared in South Florida, and now they are among the most common birds in the southern half of that state.

In Mississippi, the invasion first was noticed in 1996, along the coast and in the area around Greenwood. Like the armadillo, nutria, love bug and coyote, collared doves keep expanding their range. In 1998, a collared dove atlas was developed at Mississippi State University, and the MDWFP began asking for reports of the birds. To date, they have had hundreds of responses from conservation officers and members of the public, who have spotted the doves in every county in Mississippi. Population densities are still generally higher in the southern half of the state.

Unlike the love bug, though, collared doves are good to eat. It's pretty much impossible to taste the difference between collared doves, mourning doves and pigeons.

Hunters are concerned that these "super doves" might crowd out our native mourning doves, but scientists don't seem too worried.

"On a regional scale, the Eurasian doves don't seem to be affecting mourning dove populations," said Dr. Vilella. "Like pigeons, collared doves favor urban areas, so far."

The collared and mourning doves seem to tolerate each other with little aggression or displacement on nesting areas or territory. However, the truce doesn't extend to bird feeders; fierce battles often break out between mourning and collared doves when food is an issue.

"Right now, Eurasian collared doves don't count against the bag limit in Mississippi, but that could change," said Godwin. "Planet-wide, they are one of the fastest-moving species, so we expect their numbers to continue to expand around the state."

Doves are found in every county in Mississippi, but finding them in huntable numbers can be a problem. Look for flight lanes between good feeding, watering, graveling and roosting areas, but that can lead to a second difficulty - getting permission to hunt those locations. Many of the state's WMAs have little of the open habitat and farm-type fields that doves favor, and in other parts of the state the growing human population has made it more difficult to find doves in places where it is safe or legal to shoot. Still, there are some WMAs that have dove hunting and huntable numbers of birds.

Some areas of these WMAs are planted with sunflowers or sorghum to attract the birds. Information about the WMAs is available on the Web at

Wolf River WMA is a 10,801-acre preserve between Hattiesburg and Picayune. The tract has held huntable doves the last few years. Call (601) 795-8682 for information on locations to hunt on the area.

Shipland WMA, near Mayersville, attracts a lot of the birds that move along the corridor of the Mississippi River. Most hunters bring an ice chest and a camp chair and hang out around the edges of the open fields on this WMA.

Hunts here are described as good but not spectacular. The 3,642-acre tract can ho

ld a lot of birds when the conditions are right. Call (662) 873-9331 for more details.

Sunflower WMA, near Rolling Fork, had good dove hunting last year. There were plenty of the gray birds to make the hunting fun. Call (662) 828-3456 for exact hunting locations.

Canal and Divide Section WMAs are located along the Tenn-Tom waterway in the northeast corner of the Magnolia State. There are areas planted in sunflower and grain sorghum, according to Randall Miller, the district administrator. Canal Section has 26,000 acres of rich soil spread out along the waterway and provides good hunting. Divide, near Iuka, has 15,337 acres and a layout layout similar to that at Canal. Miller suggests calling the district office to get locations for the fields. Divide's number is (662) 423-1455. Canal Section can be reached at (662) 423-1465.

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