It’s already that time of year again_when Indian summer sets in and the farmers begin harvesting their fields of corn. The shadows become a little longer, the sky takes on a deeper hue of blue and the hankering for dove and the camaraderie of a good hunt sets in as the opening of dove season draws near.
Avid dove hunters, young and old, from all walks of life look forward to what they have waited for all year long. For many the first day of dove season might as well be a declared national holiday. It is after-all America’s favorite game bird – particularly in the South. With great exuberance, old acquaintances and friends re-unite year after year to enjoy the thrill of this shooting sport and revel in the tradition that marks the beginning of autumn in Virginia and the South.
The tradition of dove hunting is a true Southern cultural institution. For many it is a family event that spans the generations. Many boys and even some girls experience their first hunt on the dove field, which brings a new generation into the fold as well as a lifetime of reverence and appreciation for the land and for the dove itself. It is not uncommon at all to see three generations of the same family participating in a dove hunt, which appeals to those from eight years old to eighty. Being the true sporting and social event that it is – the conclusion of the hunt brings jubilation as the celebration begins with refreshments, cocktails, hors d’ oeuvres or a planned supper for everyone. It is here that relationships are solidified, stories are exchanged, traditions are shared and kinship is renewed for another season. For Southerners (by birth or by choice) it just doesn’t get any better than this.
A good dove hunt begins long before the actual hunt as scouting for the presence of dove is essential. It takes dedication to continually scout the best locations for dove in the fields you intend to hunt – with permission from the landowner – of course.
The greatest concentration of dove, during the opening days of dove season will be found in the fields of early corn that have been cut before all others. It usually takes about a week after crops are harvested to start seeing dove turn up in those places. As the season moves on and more fields open up the food source becomes more abundant and the birds spread out more. This is the time when scouting becomes so crucial to a good hunt. Later in the season doves will become much more difficult to find – but with good scouting and knowing what habitat and features they prefer – you can continue to hunt throughout the season.
Statistics show that up to eighty-five percent of doves harvested are usually in the first two weeks of dove season.
Knowing the daily patterns of the dove is important when scouting an area for them. Shortly after dawn they will seek out a watering area, and then they will move to a preferred feeding area until almost noon. They will take breaks to perch on a power line or up in a tree, water themselves or find little graveling sites with small gravel or pea sized stones that they will consume to aid their digestion. They will then return to feed for the rest of the afternoon consuming from 12 – 20 percent of their body weight per day, which they store in an area of their esophagus known as the “crop”. When their crop is full they will water again and fly to a safe perch to digest their fill until the next day of feeding takes place.
Studying the feeding habits of dove in your area will help you to determine when the best time and location for a productive hunt might be. Survey your potential hunting grounds with a good set of binoculars in the early part of the day (9:00 ish) or in the late afternoon_around 3:00 pm. Observe the doves you have spotted to determine if you have found a potential hunting site. A group of dove hunters can hunt throughout the season by continually scouting the areas that they hunt to determine where the birds are at any given time.
Dove hunting is a keen shooting sport as the fast flying birds are a challenging target to hit. Good wing shooting skills and practice before the season begins can be very helpful. Above all else, it is the teamwork and social aspect of a good dove hunt that sets it apart from all other types of hunting. Typically, during a hunt, everyone will spread out and take a spot no closer than 60 yards to one another. One person could do fairly well and shoot a few birds but 25 to 40 hunters covering a field of about 25 or 30 acres will do much better as the birds will continue to fly. In this way the field sort of covers itself as hunters will continue to move and spread out based on what they see.
When dove hunting – the hunter is bound by honor to make every effort to retrieve the bird that he or she has taken. Throw rags and a good bird dog or retriever, with a soft mouth, can come in very handy at a dove hunt. Most dove hunters I have talked to say that the best shot shell to use is a 1 to 1 1/8 ounce load of 7 1/2s. The smaller shot sizes give you more “bang” for your “buck” by having more pellets to spread out per charge.
The truth about doves
It is estimated that the current mourning dove population numbers somewhere around 400 million birds with more than 20 million taken by dove hunters each year. There are many myths surrounding the mating habits of the Mourning Dove or the songs that they sing. Their gentle cooing and mournful sound is a sign that they are marking their territory, building a nest and raising young. Contrary to what is generally thought – they are not mourning at all but proclaiming their joie-de-vivre and celebrating the cycle of life!
Dove are absolutely prolific in their mating practices. A mating pair can lay as many as six clutches per year and generally raise two – three broods each season, with two young squabs per brood. Incubation of eggs takes about two weeks. When the hatchlings have sprung from the confines of their protective shell they are fed by both parents who give the little hatchling dove’s milk – excreted from their own glands. After a few days, the parents begin supplementing the young dove’s diet with seeds until the fledgling stage arrives in about 11 – 15 days. For the next two weeks, the young doves remain nearby until they are ready to feed on their own and begin a new circle of life as adult Mourning Dove.
Although a mating pair is generally monogamous, they will take a new mate in the event that one of them is killed by a natural predator or hunter.
Diet and Habitat
A dove’s natural diet consists of seeds from an array of sources, particularly grain left over in the field after farmers have harvested their crops. Mechanized farming practices have helped to create the habitat and feed grounds essential to a thriving dove population. They prefer feeding in wide open spaces or in grassy fields with an abundant source of seeds available. Favorite seeds include sunflowers, corn, millet, wheat, oats, barley and an assortment of native grass and weed seeds. Bare ground is best for doves as they are unable to scratch the ground or remove dense cover.
The ideal habitat for dove includes an open field surrounded by a wooded area for nesting and the availability of fresh water from a stream, creek or pond nearby. They will not thrive in wetlands or in dense forests. Doves also love power lines which provide a nice high perch from where they can peruse the landscape for predators. Favorite feeding spots are in fields that give them a good view of the surrounding area.
Doves have keen eyesight and are agile fliers able to travel at high speeds while turning on a dime. For this reason, it is advisable for hunters to wear camouflaged clothing that enables them to blend into the landscape.
Dove hunting is fun and it is satisfying for its connection to nature, reverence for the bird and the fellowship of kindred spirits. There is something so natural and so satisfyingly organic about partaking of food in its purest and freshest form. Those with the greatest appreciation for nature as it is and the greatest appreciation for life itself are hunters.