Fall hunting season may take you back to your family farm for deer camp or into the backcountry in search of bull elk, but regardless where the course of your hunting season leads it almost invariably begins in the same place—a dove field. September 1 has become a hunting holiday of sorts, a celebration of the kickoff of another hunting season. Across the nation hunters of all ages head afield with an upturned bucket, a box of shells, and dreams of bacon-wrapped dove breasts with jalapenos and cream cheese.
To say that the mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) is America’s favorite gamebird is an undersell. More doves are harvested than all other game birds combined, and with an estimated U.S. population of between 350 million and 500 million birds provides plenty of hunting opportunities in virtually every state. These 10 tips, all of which are based on the bird’s biology and habits, will help you limit out faster on opening day.
1. They Are Where They Eat
According to Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, mourning doves need to eat between 12 and 20 percent of their body weight each day to survive. That equates to roughly 71 calories, which may seem like a small meal until you consider that a dove’s diet is comprised primarily of seeds. This means that doves need to find and take advantage of any available food resources, and in areas where their favorite foods are abundant—agricultural fields, disturbed ground, and mowed fields—you can expect to see high numbers of birds congregating throughout the day. Key in on food sources as you scout for birds, and pay close attention to any areas where seed-bearing grasses, weeds, and crops are abundant.
2. Dig For Dirt
Doves feed primarily on seeds, but according to Mississippi State University publications they don’t scratch like other birds. This means that doves must find food sources that are accessible on the ground. Cornfields, sunflower fields, and native prairie grasses provide ample food but the birds can only utilize these food sources when ground cover is minimal. Look for areas where there is plenty of open dirt to accommodate the birds as they feed. This type of habitat allows doves to feed efficiently and will hold more birds than areas with abundant ground cover. Freshly-disked areas are also very attractive to birds. If you’re a landowner simply turning over the soil, which exposes seeds and makes for easy feeding, will draw large numbers of birds.
3. Look for Varied Food Sources
Monocultures—areas that are dominated by a single plant species—can provide doves with abundant food, but areas dominated by a single food source generally offer a boom-or-bust proposition for birds. When seeds are mature and available the birds will have plenty to eat, but when the crop is cleaned-up the birds will largely vacate the area. Wildlife biologists know this and generally plant dove fields with a variety of mixed seeding plants including browntop millet, barley, grain sorghum, and sunflowers. When scouting for birds pay special attention to areas where there are a variety of seeding plants in proximity to one another. These areas will attract birds throughout the season.
4. Botany for Bird Hunters
Most hunters recognize agricultural crop fields that will attract birds. However, if you understand which native plants are most attractive to doves you’ll be able to identify potential hotspot that might be overlooked by others. Doves feed on a variety of native and non-native plants in the fall, and very few hunters can recognize all of them. Pay particular attention to stands of barnyard grass, ragweed, Johnson grass, lespedeza, poke weed (identifiable by its purple berries and stems), sedges, and wild peas. All of these plants are very attractive to the birds—and largely ignored by other hunters. Open areas around these plants are hidden dove hotspots.
5. Knock Out The Competition
Native mourning doves face intense competitive pressure from their non-native relative, the Eurasian collared dove. Escaped collared doves took up residence in the U.S. in the 1970s and since then they have spread across the nation. That’s not a good thing for mourning doves since collared doves compete successfully for the same resources as their native cousins, and state wildlife agencies offer liberal seasons and bag limits on collared doves. In many areas of the country collared doves are also a real nuisance to farmers, and they are often seen picking off waste grain around agricultural complexes. By actively hunting collared doves you’ll improve the environment for mourning doves while simultaneously filling your freezer with protein, and since collared doves (like mourning doves) are members of the Columbidae bird family they make excellent table fare. Be sure to check your hunting regulations before heading afield.
6. Water Works
Water is critical for dove digestion, and the birds will not nest or roost far from a suitable water source. In dove terms, a “suitable” source of water is one that has little vegetation around the shore to obstruct the birds. It’s not uncommon to see doves watering multiple times a day, especially during periods of warm, dry weather. Doves tend to seek out water more often during the morning and evening hours, so hunting near an open water source late in the day is oftentimes a great way to shoot a limit. Ponds and rivers will attract doves if their banks aren’t too steep and there’s little vegetation, but seeps in pastures, small creeks, and even puddles are all favorite watering points for birds. Set up well away from the water’s edge and use natural terrain to conceal your location. Oftentimes doves access water from the same direction each time, and once you identify the flight pattern you can set up accordingly.
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7. Scout The Summer Residents
Mourning doves are partial migrants, but in most areas you’ll find year-round resident birds. By keying in on the behaviors of resident doves prior to the season you’ll have better insight regarding the behavior of the migratory ones. In the weeks leading up to the opener, pay close attention to areas where resident birds are abundant and take note of flight patterns and movement times. This will provide you with a great deal of insight that you might have missed and you’ll also be able to map-out the network of travel corridors the birds use as they travel from feeding to watering to nest locations. Pre-season scouting will also allow you to identify possible hunting locations, and it’s a good idea to actually sit and watch for birds prior to opening day.
8. Don’t Forget Grit
Columbidae birds like mourning doves have crops, which are essentially enlarged muscular pouches that extend from the bird’s esophagus. Crops store food while the birds are feeding (one reported dove crop held over 17,200 bluegrass seeds) and, in the case of doves and pigeons, create “crop milk” which is a rich source of nutrients for nestlings. To help digest the seeds in their crop, doves swallow small stones known as grit. Grit is often collected along the sides of gravel roads, so these areas attract birds. If you find that your local public dove field is overrun with other hunters look for nearby gravel roads where the birds stop to collect grit. These areas may prove more productive than overhunted fields.
9. Rest Fields
Doves are not particularly sensitive to hunting pressure, but you can ruin a hunting area by taking limits day after day. By the end of the first week of dove season most public fields will be shot-out and the remaining doves in the area will have decided to look for food elsewhere. If you only have one field to hunt then do so sparingly—each field needs at least a full day of resting before being hunted again for optimal success, but two or three days is even better. During your pre-season scouting be sure to locate at least three different hunting locations and rotate between these sites. Sure, you might have bagged a limit on successive days in your honey hole, but it’s better to let the area settle before another shoot. Don’t exclusively hunt feeding areas either. Divide your time between feeding locations, grit sites, and water sources.
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10. Fool Their Eyes
Doves have exceedingly good eyesight, an important feature for birds that seek out tiny seeds while flying at speeds up to 55 miles per hour. It’s long been known that doves are adept at seeing movement and avoiding predation, but research has shown that doves may actually be able to see color, and the birds may avoid any hues that look out-of-place in their environment. This means that hunters need to take extra steps to conceal their location and—perhaps most importantly—should remain still. Camo facemasks, hats, and shirts are essential, and all of your hunting gear should be out-of-sight. Using natural vegetation is the best way to conceal yourself, so tucking in behind a screen of ragweed or goldenrod will make for a more successful hunt (provided you aren’t allergic to either plant species). It’s also a good idea to take steps to distract the birds: dove decoys will put the birds at ease and bring them in close for a shot. And, of course, having the sun to your back helps break-up your outline.