Hunting the Feathered Missile with a Sad Call
Mourning doves are one of several dove species in North America, but are by far the most recognized dove species. Most people associate mourning doves with their telltale song and seeing them perched on power lines or feeding in backyard bird feeders. But many people also have a rich tradition of hunting them and opening days can be a cherished family event. Here’s a little more information about the mourning dove that you might find helpful before you try hunting them.
Description and Life History of the Mourning Dove
The mourning dove is a small bird – roughly the size of a robin or cardinal – measuring about 9 to 13 inches in length (All About Birds 2018). It has an oval body, sharp tail, somewhat pointed wings, and small round head. Their breast feathers and most of their body is a grayish tan color, although their wings, heads, and tails have a slight bluish gray hue. Their eyes are black with a light blue ring around them. There is a black spot just behind and below their eyes and several black spots on their wing feathers. And you are almost certainly familiar with their soft, cooing call – “hoo HOOO hoo hoo” – that many people mistake for owls.
Mourning doves are often seen in small groups across the country throughout much of the year, but younger birds start to pair up in spring at the start of the breeding season. These pair bonds are usually lifelong, but birds will find a new mate if their mate is killed (NatureServe 2018). Males display for females during courtship by making extravagant and noisy flights or bowing and cooing to her on the ground (National Audubon Society 2018). The pair will then preen each other’s feathers as a mating ritual and may even grasp beaks to bob their heads in tandem (All About Birds 2018). Flimsy nests are constructed from grass and twigs on the ground or up to 40 feet high in a tree, shrub, or man-made structure (National Audubon Society 2018). Usually, females lay only two white eggs and take turns incubating them with her mate for about two weeks (National Audubon Society 2018; NatureServe 2018). The chicks are fed pigeon milk/crop milk – a fatty and nutritious secretion produced in the crop – by both parents for an additional two weeks until they can leave the nest. Pairs may raise a few broods each year, particularly if they live in the South where they are year-round inhabitants.
Mourning doves feed almost exclusively on seeds (e.g., wild grasses, ragweeds, and waste grain) by scratching around on the ground or at feeders, but may also consume snails, insects, and berries opportunistically (National Audubon Society 2018; NatureServe 2018). They generally feed quickly by filling their crops and then flying away to digest their meal in safety.
Although some wild doves do survive to be about 7 to 10 years of age, they have several predators and humans to contend with. Raccoons, falcons, hawks, and cats are common predators for adults, while snakes may also eat eggs or nestlings (MDNR 2018). Humans also hunt them during the season (see more below), but they are managed by wildlife agencies to be protective of populations.
Range and Habitat of the Mourning Dove
The mourning dove is a widespread and common bird in North America. It occurs from Canada down to Mexico and from coast to coast, although it leaves northern latitudes for the winter by migrating south in September. These migratory birds will then fly back and arrive in northern breeding areas in March to April (NatureServe 2018).
Because of this widespread range, the mourning dove is also a habitat generalist, occupying several mixed forest types, open prairies and savannas, croplands, deserts, and urban areas (NatureServe 2018). However, preferred habitats should include some vertical structure (e.g., shrubs, trees, etc.) for nesting/security and open field areas for foraging. Forest and field edges are particularly attractive if small seeded crops are grown there, a water source is nearby, and there is some kind of gravel/grit available (National Audubon Society 2018).
Conservation Issues for the Mourning Dove
Mourning doves are plentiful across the country, and populations likely responded positively to European settlement as unbroken forests were replaced with farm fields. The global breeding population is estimated to be approximately 120 million birds, with about 81 percent spending some part of the year in the United States, 19 percent in Mexico, and 5 percent in Canada (All About Birds 2018). While hunters certainly remove a large chunk of the population (estimated at 20 million birds annually), the doves seem to rebound without issue due to raising multiple broods per year.
However, there is another issue of conservation concern: lead poisoning. Mourning doves forage mostly on the ground in farm fields, which are commonly where hunters pursue them. Inevitably, lead pellets fall into the fields and doves consume them for grit material (All About Birds 2018). This problem is much worse in fields specifically planted to attract doves. The use of non-toxic steel shot would be a positive step to mitigate this occurrence from becoming a more significant concern.
Hunting Opportunities for the Mourning Dove
As discussed above, the mourning dove is an extremely common bird across the country, which is why it is such a popular game bird to pursue. Additionally, they are very small, fast, and agile birds, which means a hunter needs to have some polished wing-shooting skills to consistently hit them – and it’s a challenge! Here are some hunting tips for you to get out for a dove hunt this fall.
Remember that you should use an improved cylinder or modified choke in your shotgun so you have a better chance of actually hitting these small and fast-moving birds (capable of flying 40 to 60 mph). Additionally, a tighter choke would likely destroy the bird, and a single dove is an appetizer at best. Leading your targets by a few feet will help you connect with them, too.
As for where and how you should go dove hunting, you have a few options. No matter what you do, scouting for doves ahead of the season is always a good idea. Try scouting in the mornings or late afternoons when doves are most active. As mentioned earlier, some fields are hot spots for doves and may even be planted for the purpose of attracting them. Sunflower, wheat, oat, and millet fields are magnets for mourning doves. In these locations, you likely will only need to head to the field edge with a chair or bucket and wait for the birds to arrive.
If you don’t have a field that’s obviously attractive to them or the birds seem to need a little convincing, you can also use decoys for doves. Find an open spot in a low-cropped field (e.g., grain stubble) and place your decoys out to make it look like they are feeding. Since doves mate for life, position your decoys in pairs as well to make it more realistic than a giant flock. You can also clip decoys onto branches or fence posts/wires for a little more visibility. If you position your decoys about 30 to 40 yards from your position, it should convince doves passing by to at least come check it out (and maybe get within shooting range) without them noticing you.
Dove hunting is a strong tradition throughout the country, and opening day of dove season may rival opening day of many deer seasons in the Midwest. It’s a time to get together with family and friends, celebrate the beginning of fall, and realize just how good those birds are at avoiding your shots.
All About Birds. 2018. Mourning Dove. Accessed at: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Mourning_Dove/lifehistory
MDNR (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources). 2018. Mourning Dove. Accessed at: https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/birds/mourningdove.html
NatureServe. 2018. NatureServe Explorer: An online encyclopedia of life. Accessed at: http://explorer.natureserve.org
National Audubon Society. 2018. Guide to North American Birds. Accessed at: https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/mourning-dove
Last modified: September 7, 2018