Dove season serves as the unofficial start of Pennsylvania's fall hunting seasons. Though conditions typically are more summer-like than fall, hunters endure hot weather and biting insects for the opportunity for fast-paced shooting at these crafty winged targets.
Hunter success rates over the last couple of years were good and serve as a barometer of things likely to come this season.
"We get most of our information by way of the Hunter Information Program, which hunters must enroll in to hunt migratory birds such as doves," said Bill Palmer, the Pennsylvania Game Commission's wildlife biologist that oversees dove-related issues. Hunters enroll by way of the purchase of the $3 migratory game bird permit.
Palmer said about 40,000 hunters participate in Pennsylvania's dove season each year, and approximately 500,000 birds are harvested annually.
"Dove harvest numbers have been on a slow general decline," said Palmer. "But, like all forms of small game hunting, the number of dove hunters has also been declining."
Palmer said the slight falloff in harvest is a result of less hunter effort, not fewer doves.
"Dove hunters hunt as much as they did, per hunter, 20 years ago," he added. "But there are just fewer of them."
Hunting has little effect on dove populations, noted Palmer. He pointed to last season, where the daily bag limit was increased from 12 to 15 birds. "Based on what the federal folks tell us, that increase in bag limit would only lead to about a 3 percent increase in hunter harvest. And there is an extremely low harvest rate on doves, which have an annual survival rate of about 30 percent. So, there is about a 70 percent mortality rate each year. Only about 5 percent of the annual mortality rate is attributed to hunting, as compared to other causes such as predation and weather. Any creature that migrates is susceptible to a higher level of hazards."
Though dove hunting seasons are lengthy and plenty of birds are available into the fall, the hunters focus primarily on the early season.
"Dove season comes at a time where there are not a lot of other options," said Palmer. "Hunters really go at it in the first phase of the season, which has the half-day hunt. But by the time the second and third portions of the season arrive, a lot of the doves (which spent summers here) will have left. But doves are highly migratory. Birds from farther north may winter here."
The Pennsylvania Game Commission is participating in a 26-state dove research effort where doves were banded to learn more regarding dove harvest and survival rates. Palmer said the study would also serve to learn more regarding the bird's distribution and timing of migrations.
Preliminary information suggests that mourning dove populations, on a national scale, may be on the decrease, but Palmer said that's not reflected in Pennsylvania's dove populations. He expects another season complete with good dove hunting opportunities.
"Based on surveys, such as call-counts and breeding bird surveys, there has been a 30-year decrease in dove numbers on a national scale," reported Palmer. "But call counts in Pennsylvania indicate a stable or increasing population. So, we have a good situation. I see no reason not to expect another good take by our hunters this fall."
Palmer said hunters could expect a 70-day season with a 15-bird bag limit.
As with all game species, the availability of doves is driven by habitat availability. Pennsylvania has widely varied types of habitats, so the birds are not equally distributed statewide. Doves require a food source, which is typically provided by corn fields and grain fields. Most doves harvested in the early season will have crops packed with corn and a variety of grains or seeds. Doves need grit to digest their food, which is provided by gravel (farmland gravel roads and lanes), rock quarries and strip mines.
Water holes are an important component of a potential dove hotspot. Doves take on water late in the afternoon, before going to roost. Ponds with clean banks attract doves, as will creeks meandering through a field.
Dead trees along a field edge or tall pines on slopes above crop fields, which afford doves good visibility, tend to be prime roosting areas.
On a statewide basis, Palmer said the commission has been using its wildlife management units as a means of categorizing dove habitat and populations.
"Our wildlife management units, were originally established to manage the deer herd," he noted, adding that land-use patterns, such as agriculture, help determine WMU divisions.
"WMUs with higher percentages of land in agriculture will have higher dove kill-per-square mile numbers."
Palmer said the highest harvest ratios exist in the southeastern and south-central regions.
"That's the premier habitat, where the highest numbers of birds are found, as well as the highest harvest rates. Hunters are taking 20 or more birds per square mile there," he said.
Extreme northwestern Pennsylvania, within the fertile lands that border Lake Erie, features some exceptional dove habitat.
"The first time I was up there I had never seen anything like it," noted Palmer. "Dove hunting is a huge social occasion when you go down South to Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee, where it's a big event. Up around Erie, you witness the same thing. The birds are really concentrated in that vineyard country. Based on what my biologist friends from down South tell me, that situation is about as close to Southern dove hunting as we have in this state."
Palmer said hunters could assist the commission in the management of doves by registering bands from killed birds they harvest this fall.
The agency plans to band around 2,000 doves this year. Two types of bands will be used. One, the traditional style, has a write-in address. The other has a Web address.
"If hunters are requested to send in a wing, it's really helpful when they do so," he explained. "We know a lot more about harvest rates and survival, and about population dynamics. All that information comes from our banding survey and wing collection surveys. So, hunters not only enjoy a great recreational activity, they play an important part in the management of the bird as well."
The dove wing survey, similar to those presently conducted on waterfowl and woodcock, has randomly-selected hunters receiving postage-paid envelopes in which they are asked to mail in one wing from doves harvested during the first week of the hunting season.
As Palmer noted, the southeast and south-central portions of the state feature the largest tracts of "premium" dove cover. These are the places where dove numbers are the highest and the harvests are the greatest.
Matt Teehan, a wildlife conservation officer in the Southeast Region, suggests hunters key in on areas in Maidencreek and Ontelaunee townships as well as the Topton area in Berks County.
"These areas feature open grain farm fields," he noted.
Also in Berks County, WCO Dave Brockmeirer singled out Oley Township, near the town of Oley, as the best dove-shooting area in his district, citing an abundance of agricultural land, watering spots and quarries.
"West Fallowfield Township is generally good for doves," noted Keith Mullin, a Chester County WCO. "The closest town would be Cochranville. Farm-Game Project No. 45 is in this township as well. The township is mostly agricultural, with corn being the major crop. If the corn harvest coincides with the season properly, the number of doves available to hunt will be quite large."
In nearby Lancaster County, Steve Martin, a federal air supervisor, suggests dove hunters look into the hunting prospects around the small town of Martindale. He also noted that the areas east and southeast of Ephrata, in both Ephrata and East Earl townships, attract a lot of doves.
"This is due to the presence of several stone quarries, as well as a large amount of agricultural activity. Also, look northeast and northwest of New Holland, in Earl and East Earl townships, both north and south of Route 23, where there is also a large volume of agriculture.
"Good numbers of doves are present in all four compass directions from the town of Intercourse. Along the Route 340 corridor, in Upper Leacock, Leacock and Salisbury townships, there are good numbers of doves, not only due to farming activities, but because there are many creeks and streams, plus roosting areas and orchards," Martin noted.
In Warwick Township, check out the areas around the town of Lititz, which also has a good combination of agriculture, quarries, streams and roosting areas. The dove hunting generally improves around mid-September because of the amount of standing corn still in the fields on the Sept. 1 season opener.
In Northampton County, WCO Brad Kreider said that Northampton County has had decent dove hunting because of the many quarries, waterways, roosts and available grit in the area. However, the last decade has seen major expanding development throughout the county.
"Years ago, my deputies and I would check as many as 25 to 30 dove hunters in a single large grass field bordered by tree lines," he said. "Today, some of those same locations are now industrial parks or housing developments. Dove-hunting hotspots are still here, but the available hunting landscape is dwindling."
Three areas that still produce good dove populations include Plainfield Township, Washington Township and Lower Bethel Township. All three townships contain large areas of open farmland with cultivated crop fields. These townships adjoin and fall north of Easton and south of Bangor.
Easy access is available from routes 611, 33, 22 or 512.
In the South-Central Region of the state, Adams County is one of the hottest dove-hunting spots.
"Dove hunting is extremely popular in Adams County. The volume of hunters on opening day almost reminds me of the first day of regular deer season," said Darren J. David, an Adams County WCO. "Not only are there plenty of good crop fields to hunt, but apple orchards are what really seem to set the county apart. Orchard hunting produces a high volume of birds, particularly as it approaches sunset. We have many orchards signed up in our public access program, too."
David L. Grove, another Adams County WCO, added that Hamiltonban Township, near Fairfield, is a good area within that county to pursue doves. He added that the apple orchards are the main draw, but that some orchard owners won't allow dove hunting because of the possibility of shot getting into apples.
"Be sure to ask first," he said, "and ask farmers for places to hunt that won't affect crops. Also, there are quite a few farm fields with power lines running through them," he added. "These areas have some of the highest dove concentrations that I personally have seen."
With the exception of portions of Erie County, which Palmer previously described, the northern tier counties of the state, which tend to feature much more forest than field, don't attract high concentrations of doves. Still, there are isolated areas with good dove-hunting opportunities. Parts of the Northeast Region fall into this category.
"The best areas within this region would be the farmland along the Delaware or Susquehanna rivers," said Tim Conway, Northeast Region Information and Education supervisor. "Most of this land is privately owned, but access may still be had if you ask permission."
Because of the popularity of dove hunting within the vineyard country of Erie County, dove hunters will want to do plenty of pre-season scouting, not only for concentrations of birds, but to secure permission to hunt. Fortunately, the county has plenty of properties enrolled in the PGC's public access program.
There are other decent dove-hunting opportunities in the northwestern portion of the state. Farming activities that break up the wooded landscape are likely to attract huntable numbers of doves.
For example, the potato farming enterprises near Leeper, in Clarion County, feature strips of grain and corn along with potatoes, a perfect draw for doves.
Much of western Pennsylvania continues to experience surface mining. This activity, like open quarries, is an attractant to doves. Hunters scouting for potential dove-hunting spots should keep an eye out for active and inactive mines, and then seek permission to hunt on nearby farmed lands, such as the Lawrence County State Game Lands 151, which is on Mason Road near an old strip mine.
The southwestern part of the state has many areas where agriculture meets mining. One area to investigate is in Armstrong County, north of Kittanning along Route 268, as well as between Kittanning and Butler, north of the Route 422 corridor.
In Allegheny County, WCO Dan Puhala recommended the Maltise farm
near Renton. He said it's a natural travel route that doves have used for years.
WCO Matt Kramer said dove hunters should focus on the northern portion of Beaver County, such as the farming lands near Enon Valley and Darlington, as well as State Game Lands 285.
WCO Larry Olsavsky recommended the Clearfield Township area of Cambria County, near Chest Springs.
"There's plenty of action there year after year, thanks to the corn and other grains grown in the area," he noted.
Fayette County officer Jason Farabaugh pointed to the large farm fields in Luzerne Township and Brownsville area near the Monongahela River.
In neighboring Somerset County, WCO Travis Anderson mentioned the Pine Hill area in Brothersvalley Township. Fellow officer Brian Witherite added that strip-mining sites in Brothersvalley and Summit townships hold birds. Open fields border the areas. Nearby mining sites are enrolled in public access programs.
The best bet in Westmoreland County includes the eastern edge near New Alexandria and Saltsburg. The Loyalhanna Dam flood control area is open to hunting and has the potential to provide some dove shooting, according to officers Seth Mesoras and Tom Fazi.
WHERE TO GO
The Pennsylvania Game Commission has added the locations of its Farm-Game (and Forest Game) cooperators on its Web site, which is a wonderful resource for sportsmen pursuing farm species, such as mourning doves.
Log on to the Commission's website at www.pgc.state.pa.us, and then click on "Hunting." Click on "Public Access Cooperator Lands" under the "Places to Hunt" heading.