With over 8 million resident birds and plenty of public land available, Keystone State dove shooters have lots to look forward to this fall. Our expert explains. (September 2008)
Our mourning dove population is solid and expected to provide excellent hunting opportunities this fall. Hunters can look forward to a season structure similar to the three-season split of recent years.
Bag limits will be at least as liberal as in years past, with a possible increase on the horizon.
"Unlike the trend nationally," said Bill Palmer, a Pennsylvania Game Commission wildlife biologist, "the dove population in Pennsylvania is steadily on the increase.
"I expect things to be as good as or better than they were last season. There are about 8 million doves in Pennsylvania, and about 40 million nationally."
Banding studies conducted in recent years indicate that most of the doves harvested in Pennsylvania are from the Quaker State.
You shouldn't interpret this to mean that doves aren't migratory. Rather, it's just a matter of when the majority of doves are bagged.
"We've banded about 8,000 doves since 2003," says Palmer. "About 93 percent of the banded birds recovered by hunters were banded in Pennsylvania. I think that the numbers have been confused with migration -- or an absence of migration.
"Some birds do stick around all year. I have banded doves at my bird feeder that stay year 'round. But by and large, doves are migratory.
"In all of the states that are banding doves, the majority of the harvest takes place early in the season, before the fall migration begins. So it appears that hunters are shooting their own doves at that time of year."
Hunters can expect to enjoy a liberal 70-plus-day dove season similar to recent years, though most of the hunter attention takes place during early September.
"For years," Palmer explained, "we've had a three-segment split season, with the traditional early-season opener on Sept. 1. And then there's a middle portion in November and a short late hunt after Christmas. I don't expect that to change."
While the three-split season isn't a departure from the norm, Palmer did report that hunters could soon be entitled to a higher bag limit.
"One change that might take place, -- perhaps not this season but likely next year (in 2009) -- is an increase in the bag limit from 12 to 15 birds," he said. "From surveys such as we've done in Pennsylvania, biologists are finding that raising the bag limit will have little effect on dove populations.
"Research has shown that doves don't live a long time anyway, but that's not because of hunting. Hunting accounts for only about 5 percent of dove mortality.
"Doves are very productive, and we don't have to worry about them as much as we do some other birds. And fewer folks are hunting doves while the birds' numbers are on the increase. So we can increase recreational opportunities without impacting dove numbers."
The prospect of increasing the bag limit was being considered at the federal level, where such changes must be approved prior to going to the states. Final migratory-bird seasons and limits are announced in late summer.
Though pockets of decent dove hunting are sprinkled across the state, Pennsylvania's southeastern, south-central and western portions harbor the greatest numbers of doves.
Not coincidentally, these regions also contain vast agricultural areas, containing the habitat doves prefer.
"If you look at the dove harvest per square mile, which I think indicates how good the dove hunting is, you'll see the highest harvest rates in wildlife management units 5A, 5B, 5C and 5D, which are in extreme southeastern and south-central Pennsylvania," noted Palmer.
"On the western side of the state, the harvest rates are highest in areas 1A and 1B, and 2B, 2C and 2D."
The western Pennsylvania management units that Palmer mentioned include areas of extreme northwestern Pennsylvania, including Erie and Crawford counties. They also include heavily agricultural counties such as Washington, Armstrong, Lawrence, Mercer, Butler, Indiana and southern Clarion counties.
Western Pennsylvania's mountainous areas -- more specifically, the Laurel Highlands -- have fewer agricultural lands, hence their dove harvest numbers are lower.
The same is true of the state's mountainous areas in the north-central and northeastern regions.
"The vineyard country up along Lake Erie is about as close to southern dove hunting as you're going to find in Pennsylvania," Palmer noted.
"In Unit 1A, which includes Mercer, Lawrence and a portion of Butler County, the harvest rate is right up there with the Southeast Region.
"The harvest in Unit 1B, which includes Erie County, is a bit lower as a whole. But there are portions of it that are exceptional." (Continued)
During the 2006 dove season, the latest season for which numbers have been processed, WMUs 5A, 5B and 5C produced 18 to 20 birds per square mile. Units 1A and 5D produced 15 birds, followed by units 1B, 2B, 2D, 4A, 4B, and 4C, with around 10 birds.
The remaining management units -- primarily the southwestern corner of the state up through the mountains into the north-central and northeast regions -- all gave up below five birds per square mile.
In all, an estimated 40,000 hunters participated in dove hunts that season, bagging an estimated 400,000 doves.
If the WMU you live in doesn't have a particularly high harvest rate, don't be discouraged. Hunters can often find pockets of habitat that hold good numbers of doves, especially where water, food and roosting sites are plentiful.
In areas where dove numbers are low, hunting pressure can be non-existent. That means you won't have much competition, if any, for the available birds.
"It's a lot like grouse hunting," said Palmer. "Regionally, there's a big difference. But you'll find pockets of decent grouse hunting anywhere in the state. For example, Unit 5D -- the management unit I live in -- doesn't have a very high harvest rate. But there's some good dove shooting availa
ble around here."
Doves require a food source, which is typically provided by disked cornfields and grain fields. Most doves harvested in the early season will have their crops packed with a variety of grains and seeds. Doves need grit to digest their food, and they obtain it from gravel they pick up along roadways or near water holes, rock quarries and strip mines.
A water hole is an important component of any potential dove hotspot. Ponds with clean, shallow banks attract doves, as will shallow creeks meandering through open fields. Doves normally drink water late in the afternoon, prior to going to roost.
Dead trees along field edges, which afford the birds good visibility, tend to be prime roosting areas.
"With doves, it really pays to scout, to drive around prior to the season, looking for the areas doves are currently using," says Palmer.
"Last September, I drove around on opening day and found hunters on fields where there weren't any hunters the year before. They'd done their homework and knew where the doves were going to be that opening day."
Research conducted by biologists like Palmer is vital to understanding what's going on with wildlife. One example of this is wing sampling. Randomly selected hunters will receive envelopes to let them send in wings from their harvested doves.
"We are in the second year of the wing survey," said Palmer. "Wing collection gives us lots of information, the most important of which is the recruitment level of doves, and how well they're doing and how many reach maturity.
"If hunters receive an envelope, it's important that they send in their wings. The same thing goes when a banded bird is shot."
Palmer said that hunters should be aware that there's been a change in banding.
"Traditional bands for ducks and doves have a call-in phone number on them," he explained. "This year, half of our doves will have bands with a Web address on them."
Followings is a specific look at dove hotspots around the state, based on information provided by the PGC's wildlife conservation officers and land management officers:
Dave Brockmeier, a Berks County WCO, said the area east of Yellowhouse at the intersection of routes 562 and 662 is a good location.
"This is mainly Oley Township," he said. "There are quarries, water and agricultural land. This land is primarily private, but we do have some co-op farms at this point.
"Scouting and seeking permission to hunt are a must."
Northampton County WCO Brad Kreider said his first choice in is Lower Mt. Bethel Township along the Delaware River north of Easton (Martins Creek Area).
"This area contains some large farms, open spaces and food, water and shelter -- which should mean good population of doves," he said.
"For the same reasons, the second area I would suggest is Plainfield Township. Even though development has started to encroach, the area still hosts some good-sized farms and open areas."
Chad Eyler, a York County WCO, suggested that dove hunters explore the possibilities of SGL 416 in New Salem Township.
"It has excellent dove shooting potential," said Eyler. "The site always tends to have mowed fields for the first few weeks of dove season. However, it gets hunted pretty hard."
York County WCO Guy Hansen said Hopewell and North Hopewell townships (near Stewartstown and Shrewsbury) have decent populations of doves.
"Pre-season scouting is a must in this area," Hansen noted, "but historically, the birds have been quite plentiful. Manchester Township (near Manchester) has a large dove population and is a popular place to shoot, even though there are corporate buildings nearby."
Also in York County, land manager Mike Reeder recommended SGL 242.
"Over the years there have been high numbers of doves in the fields north of Old York Road west of Rossville. These fields are planted in grains and grass and seem to hold a lot of birds."
The best area that I know as of now," said Dennis Warfel of Lancaster County, "is at the Muddy Run area on the lands outside Muddy Run Park in Martic Township.
"I've heard hunters say there was a good roosting area where the hemlock trees are grouped together."
Chester County WCO Keith Mullin said that in his district, Highland and West Fallowfield townships are very good areas.
"There are large agricultural areas, and it's on a flyway for migrating birds. Cochranville is in West Fallowfield Township, as well as most of farm-game Project No. 45."
Biologist Bill Palmer said that as a whole, the south-central region of the state is one of the East's top dove- hunting areas.
Franklin County WCO Barry Leonard reports that dove hunting is quite good throughout the northern part of his area: "I often see flocks of birds in the area south of Shippensburg off Route 11. Another good spot is the area off Route 997 across from the Letterkenny Army Depot.
"In the southern part of the county, dove hunters should explore the area around the town of Williamson. There are old quarries with heavy cedar growth surrounded by open farmland. There's also the orchard area around St. Thomas, and the open farmland in Quincy Township."
Land management officer Steven Spangle said that SGL 249 in Adams County offers good dove shooting in September. He added, "There should be some good shooting on SGL 169 in Cumberland County, as well."
Also in Adams County, WCO Darren David said that dove hunters should consider gaining access to the county's numerous apple orchards.
"We have found that apple orchards are unsung hotspots for doves, especially closer to sunset," David said. "Also, it just so happens that most of our 60 or so safety zone cooperators happen to be orchard owners. Orchard country starts in the southwest part of Adams county and then north and east again along the northern tier."
Cumberland County WCO Eric Horsh stated that a good area is SGL 169 and the surrounding area. "Also," he said, "there's the quarry outside of Shippensburg on Route 533."
Fellow Cumberland County WCO Tim Wenrich suggested spots in and around New Kingston and Silver Spring Township on farms adjacent to the train tracks. Also, South Middleton Township hunters do well in the same areas.
SGL 230 has some birds, but in the first season last year, their activity was slow because not all of the fields were cut until later.
Where the habitat is conducive to doves in the northeastern part of the state, there are a number of good options -- including these picks of the region's officers:
Wayne County WCO Frank J. Dooley reported that dove hunting in northern part of his county is limited to the areas around farms and the numerous stone quarries that dot the landscape.
"Areas adjacent to SGL 159, where large stands of hemlock and white spruce join private farmlands, are probably the best areas to find good mourning dove hunting," he said.
"Areas north of Honesdale and east of Rileyville off Route 371 and Pine Mill Road should also produce good shooting."
Montour-Northumberland WCO Rick Deiteric said that in Montour County, the best dove-shooting action runs from PPL Washingtonville and the surrounding farms all the way north, and then over to Turbotville and Watsontown in northern Northumberland County.
LMO Keith Sanford, who serves Columbia, Montour and Northumberland counties, said that private lands throughout the Turbotville area offer some good dove hunting. But sportsmen will need to make their contacts on potential hunting areas prior to the season.
"There are also some farms in the Elysburg area that may provide some shooting," he said.
The Northwest Region's dove-hunting opportunities include the fertile lands not far from Lake Erie's shoreline. Dove hunting is a long-standing tradition in the region, but hunters new to the game should be prepared to do some legwork to gain access. As a bonus, Erie County has a good number of farms enrolled in the Pennsylvania Game Commission's land access program.
Another Northwest Region area to consider, according to Clarion County WCO Rod Bimber, is the Longacre Potato Farm on Route 36 north of Leeper. "Potato fields mixed with strips of corn and grain are a big draw to doves," he said.
In Lawrence County, WCO Jeffrey Kendall reported that the most consistent place would be on SGL 151 along Mason Road at the old strip mine.
Recently, the Pennsylvania Game Commission added the locations of its Farm-Game and Forest Game cooperators to its Web site -- which is a wonderful resource for sportsmen pursuing all species of game, including mourning doves.
For more information and to access the list, log onto the Commission's Web site at www.pgc.state.pa.us. Click on "Hunting" and then, under the "Places to Hunt" heading, "Public Access Cooperator Lands."