The hunters took their places during the last vestige of night, a pale gray light streaking the sky above the eastern horizon. They situated themselves in a small corn field, two or three or four bunched together around little islands of corn stalks that stood in the otherwise harvested field. Others took positions along the field’s edges, their backs pushed against the scrubby bushes and gnarled trees that lined the field’s eastern border.
As the hunters settled into canvas field chairs and stools, the rising sun transformed an unremarkable gray dawn to a spectacular scene of pink and orange brushstrokes haphazardly washed across a purple canvas.
The air was thick and damp and heavy. Despite the early hour, perspiration streamed down the arms and backs and necks of the hunters, falling and splattering upon their shotguns as they shoved shells into chambers and magazines. Mosquitoes rose from a nearby irrigation ditch and found exposed skin.
Soon there were small dark shapes flying toward the field. They dipped and darted over the field, their erratic flight pattern and uneven wing beats revealing them as the objects of the hunters’ pursuit. Scores of birds flitted overhead now. Some landed in the field to search the dry ground for morsels of corn while others lingered overhead in a wary approach.
A shotgun barked and shattered dawn’s silence. Several more shots rang out, followed by boisterous cheers and jeers.
“Good shot!” one man yelled across the field.
“I hope you brought plenty of shells,” another shouted.
On a small piece of ground in the Mississippi Delta, dove season finally had arrived.
Although dove hunting doesn’t have as many adherents as waterfowl or big game hunting, for many hunters around the country, especially across the South, the opening day of dove season represents the unofficial kickoff to a broader view of fall and winter hunting seasons.
Dove season affords many outdoorsmen their first opportunity since the previous winter to dig their shotguns out of the closet and go afield in search of wild game. That also makes it a sort of celebration, a time to gather with like-minded brethren and look ahead to many more days afield and Mother Nature’s promise of cooler weather and more active wildlife.
Like a favorite college football team’s opening game against an unimpressive nonconference foe, it may not be the big game, but at least it’s a game.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an estimated 959,900 sportsmen actively hunted mourning and white-winged doves last season, harvesting roughly 17 million birds. By comparison, the Fish and Wildlife Service reported that 1.1 million waterfowl hunters took an estimated 14.8 million ducks and 3.2 million geese last year.
(The Fish and Wildlife Service derives those estimates based on the Harvest Information Program, a cooperative effort between the federal government and individual states to quantify hunters of migratory game birds. Sportsmen who hunt migratory birds are required to register in the Harvest Information Program before hunting. They’re asked a series of general questions about their hunting success the previous season, and a smaller sample of hunters is surveyed by the Fish and Wildlife Service to determine estimated participation and harvest.)
The mourning dove is one of the most widely distributed and abundant birds in North America. According to a 2008 estimate, the overall mourning dove population was roughly 350 million birds. Mourning doves breed from southern Canada throughout the United State into Mexico, Bermuda, the Bahamas and the Greater Antilles. They largely winter in the southern U.S. and into Mexico and parts of Central America.
For the past several decades, mourning doves have been managed on a continental basis based on management units that are somewhat like the flyway model for managing migratory waterfowl. There are eastern, central and western management units, and population monitoring is undertaken annually in individual states to determine state and management unit population trends.
Wildlife managers use call-count surveys to determine an annual index of abundance for mourning doves. Survey routes are located on secondary roads and have 20 listening stations spaced at one-mile intervals. At each stop, the number of doves heard calling, the number of doves seen, and the level of noise that may affect the observers’ ability to hear calling doves is recorded.
The counts, which are conducted once per route between May 20 and June 5 each year, begin a half-hour before sunrise and generally take about two hours to complete. The total number of doves heard on each route is used to determine annual indexes of abundance during the breeding season. Comparing the annual indexes over time allows wildlife managers to determine trends in mourning dove abundance.
According to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s “Mourning Dove Population Status Report 2011,” which was released in July, the eastern management unit, which consists of 27 states comprising 30 percent of the land area of the contiguous U.S. (all states lying east of the Mississippi River and Louisiana), had no evidence of significant change in dove populations over the past 10 years.
Among the eastern management unit states, North Carolina had the highest annual call-count survey value with a mean of 41 doves per route over the past two years. Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, South Carolina and Wisconsin all had 20 to 30 doves per route. The rest of the eastern management unit states had 10 to 20 doves per route, with the exception of West Virginia, which had less than 10 doves per route.
In the central management unit, which consists of 14 states containing about 46 percent of the land area of the contiguous U.S., there was some evidence of a decline in dove abundance across the whole management unit, with the biggest declines recorded in Texas and Oklahoma. Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota had the highest abundance in the central management unit, with two-year mean values ranging from 40.4 to 49.9 doves per route. Other states in the central unit showed between 12.2 and 26.1 doves per route, with the exception of Wyoming, which was the only central unit state with a value of less than 10 doves (6.9) per route.
The western management unit, consisting of seven states representing 24 percent of the land area of the contiguous U.S., showed evidence of declining dove numbers across the unit as well as in Oregon, California and Arizona. Still, Arizona had the highest number of doves per route at 17.3. All other states in the western unit had less than 10 doves per route, with values ranging from 4.5 to 9.7 doves per route.
So what do the numbers mean? It’s hard to provide a detailed description without an advanced degree in statistics, but the bottom line based on 10-year trends is that dove numbers appear to be steady in the eastern management unit and declining in the central and western units.
There’s also the impact of floods and drought to consider. Although wildlife managers point to the resiliency of wildlife populations, spring flooding throughout the northern plains and the Mississippi Valley figure to have at least some localized impacts on dove hunting. The extreme drought conditions in the southwest also figure to affect hunters’ success this season. And the extent of the impacts of those natural phenomena likely won’t be seen immediately but in the years ahead.
That doesn’t mean much in the way of change for the coming season. Each management unit will be in the “moderate” regulatory framework – the other options are restrictive and liberal – just as last year. That means a maximum daily bag limit of 15 birds for states in the eastern and central management units and a maximum daily limit of 10 for states in the western unit.
With some evidence of declining dove numbers in the central and western units, along with ongoing drought in some parts of the country, the news isn’t all good this season. But there still should be plenty of birds to provide the kind of action that brings hunters out of the house to kick off hunting season in a nearby field.