Melinda Harder shifted her weight to her front foot and started to mount her gun. The lead dove saw the movement and dipped ten feet, veered to her left and increased speed with his companions following in close formation.
Now it was a longer crossing shot and Harder struggled to catch up with the gray rockets. Harder lowered her gun a little for better vision, opened her stance, smoothly remounted the gun, swung and fired. The leading bird tumbled in a cloud of feathers at 35 yards. It was a very fine shot as that dove had turned her 150 degrees.
"One shot, one bird. That's 100%. I'm done," Harder said with an ear to ear grin. That hunting scene was playing out over much of the United States, as it was September first and the opening day of dove season in much of the United States. The dove opener is a long anticipated day in many hunting groups. The dog days of summer seem to drag on almost endlessly until it is time to start scouting for doves and practicing on clay targets.
Dove hunting is a family tradition in much of the United States. It is usually the first hunting season to open. Doves are plentiful, tasty and a very challenging quarry. Dove hunts are considered to be relaxed, late afternoon, social events for family and friends that end in a cookout and a recount of the hunt by young and old alike. It is this relaxed atmosphere that makes dove hunting an excellent way to provide a first hunting experience for a young hunter.
Most dove hunters in the United States hunt one of the two almost indistinguishable subspecies of mourning doves. In Texas and parts of the southwest, white winged doves are also hunted. The mourning dove is the most numerous and widely distributed game bird in North America. A recent estimate of their populations in the United States places dove numbers at 470 million birds with the highest nesting densities in the Great Plains.
Doves are hunted in most of the contiguous states in the United States and all of Mexico. Approximately 2.5 million hunters pursue doves each fall. Since doves are a migratory bird the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) manage them. The USFWS establishes a framework and then the individual states set their seasons with in that framework.
The mourning dove is a difficult target due to their speed, size and aerobatics abilities. Doves are a shot shell maker's dream. The national average is over 7 shells per dove and with about 2.5 million dove hunters afield that is a lot of shooting. The poor shooting is easier to understand when you consider that dove season is the first to open and a dove can cruise at 45 miles per hour and, turn dip and dive and get their speed up to 60 miles per hour. The top three shot shell makers Federal, Remington and Winchester estimate that 50% of their shot shells are sold to dove hunters.
Doves are a short lived, prolific and monogamous species. They apparently form a pair bond that lasts through the nesting season. Doves usually lay two eggs and the male and female alternate sitting on the nest through a 14-15 day incubation period. The hatchlings stay in the nest and are fed a special substance called "crop milk" that is secreted by the dove's crop. Both parents feed the young this way and gradually start bringing them seeds. By the time they leave the nest, their diet is almost all small seeds. The "squab" leave the nest at about 14 days and are still fed by the male for another several weeks.
Female doves will lay another pair of eggs and start incubating them soon after the first young leave the nest. In the southern part of their breeding range, doves may have five or more broods in a nesting season. Mortality of the young is fairly high. Nest predation also takes a toll.
Dove populations will grow through the summer and by late August, doves will gather on gravel roads and power lines. It is not unusual to see hundreds of them near good food, water and roosting sites in the late summer before the season opens.
Doves are seedeaters and will only occasionally take soft, green vegetation. Cereal grains like wheat, sorghum and corn are preferred foods and other crops like sunflowers, soybeans, and peanuts are used when available. Waste grains from agricultural crops often make up over 50% of a dove's diet.
Wild foods preferred by doves will vary by region and through the season. The seeds of weedy grasses like foxtail and wild sunflower seeds are often important as are pigweed and ragweed seeds. Croton and spurges (Euphorbia species) also can be important foods. Knowing how to identify seeds in the crop of a dove and the plants that produce the seeds can help you locate good concentrations of doves.
Doves like to feed on open ground and in the company of other doves. They will often land on a high place in the middle of a field and start to feed. This is one reason that dove decoys are effective
The best hunting strategy for doves is first to focus on finding a concentration of doves and then learn where they feed, drink and roost. Doves will usually develop a fairly consistent flight pattern. Doves seem to like the same areas year after year.
Spending twenty minutes learning the flight lanes on a good dove field before the opening day hunt is a good strategy. Watch a large area with binoculars and count the number of doves that move near potential places to sit. By charting the activity you may find areas where several flight patterns cross. These are excellent places to sit and decoy doves.
It only takes a few decoys to increase the number of doves that fly within range. Putting out decoys can give the hunter the same type of shot again and again. Decoys should be placed facing into the wind where doves have been seen congregating. The decoys have to be visible from where the doves are flying to be effective.
If the dove season opens in a hot, dry spell, ponds with bare margins make great places to hunt during the two or three hours before sunset. Woody pasture fringes with dead trees or field margins with large numbers of dead limbs near wheat stubble, or recently cut milo or sunflowers are often highly productive because they are used as loafing and roosting sites. Weedy areas with sunflowers and ragweeds are good when the seeds are mature and starting to drop (usually after the first frost).
Later in the season, doves gather into larger flocks and start to migrate. These flocks often linger around high quality food (sunflowers and wheat seem to be favorites) at the edges of barriers like cities, rivers or reservoirs. Cold fronts tend to move these birds south, but if the food conditions are good, it is often possible the have good shooting to the end of the season, but you have to find doves that have stalled their migration to take advantage of an exceptional food source.
Good Camo gear is also important part of dove hunting. Doves have good vision and will flare out of range if they see you. Staying low and not moving until the last moment will usually give better shots. If you hunt on public land or in a large party, it is a good idea to know where all the hunters are positioned and even place some blaze orange tape in a tree next to each hunter so their positions are obvious.
Dove hunting can provide a great tune up for retrieving dogs. Dogs often do not like to pick up doves as the feathers are dry and come off easily. Doves are good marking and retrieving practice. Remember to keep the dog in the shade and be alert for heat related problems in the early part of the dove season.
Doves are mild-flavored dark meat. Dove breasts are excellent cooked on a grill with a few hickory chips for flavor. A strip of bacon attached to the breast by toothpicks or a sliver of pickled jalapeno pepper stuffed into each side of the breast meat are little touches that many dove hunters like.
Dove hunting is a wonderful opportunity to provide a first hunting experience for a young hunter. Dove hunting is done from a stationary position and they are usually seen for some distance before they are in range. Doves usually provide enough shooting to develop good form. Passing on the hunting tradition is important if we want our sport to continue. Hunters are made one twelve year old at a time. There is nothing quite like a good dove hunting experience to start a boy or girl on the path of being a serious hunter. Plan ahead this year and take a novice hunter on a dove hunt this season. Be sure and get out for several pre-season shooting practice sessions. Stress safe hunting at every chance and include the novice when you go out to look for places to hunt. When the day arrives keep the hunting party small, forget about your own shooting and focus your efforts on the novice. Don't forget that camera.