Waterfowl Hunting photo

How much do you really know about the doves you bag? Besides the creeping realization that they’re maddeningly hard to hit and taste great hot off the grill, probably not much.

But an annual report issued by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is full of data that provides a fairly comprehensive portrait of America’s mourning dove population. I got a copy of the report without even asking. It’s a perk of participating in the USFWS’s annual Dove Wing Collection Survey. For the past two years I’ve snipped off the right wing of every dove I’ve bagged, and shipped them to biologists who use the appendages as one measure of the age and abundance of our dove population.

Last week we surveyors got to see the results of our collective work. Here are some highlights:

  • The oldest doves bagged by hunters are in Tennessee (average age: 3.23 years old), Arkansas (3.19 years old), Pennsylvania (3.15 years old), and Alabama (3.19 years old).

  • The nation’s youngest doves die in New Mexico, where the average age of doves in the bag is 1.07 years old. Other states with a younger age class of doves in the bag include Oregon (1.20 years old), Arizona (1.23 years old), Wyoming (1.41 years old), and Colorado (1.49 years old).

  • In my home state of Montana, the average age of birds in the bag is 1.70 years old.

The USFWS divides the nation into management units, the Eastern, Central, and Western. Based on wing returns, the average age of doves in the Eastern Management Unit this past year was 2.37, the oldest birds in the country. The Central Management Unit’s average dove age was 2.03 years old. It was 1.58 years old in the Western unit.

In terms of abundance, Texas leads all-comers. The wing survey is by no means a total census of birds, but it gives an idea of relative population. Lone Star wing collectors submitted a total of 2,347 mourning dove wings. Other top states include Virginia (1,573 wings), California (1,475 wings), and North Carolina (1,084). Surveyors in most states submit around 500 wings per year.

States with low wing-return rates include Rhode Island (0), West Virginia (178), Louisiana (179), Utah (225), Mississippi (255), and Wisconsin (281).

These analytic stats are mildly interesting. What is much more interesting is the act of collecting the wings. Unfortunately, my stint as a contributor to these wing surveys is over. After two years, the Service is looking for a new corps of surveyors.