Hunting for Mourning Doves (Or Not)

Aug 9, 2018

Mourning Dove
Credit naturespicsonline.com / Wikimedia Commons

Summer is in full swing, but believe it or not, the first of our fall hunting seasons are only a month or so away.

In this episode of Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist looks at one of our state’s newer hunting seasons, the mourning dove season.

Like many little boys, I had a BB gun growing up, as did my brothers.  Dad had lists of birds that we could shoot or not shoot. Pigeons, grackles, and starlings were permissible to shoot. Pretty much all other birds were not allowed, and rightfully so, as they were also protected by law. But, on top of the layer of protection state and federal law afforded, some birds held the ultimate layer of protection: BIRDS THAT DAD REALLY LIKED. You had better never kill one of these, intentionally or unintentionally, because it would usher in the swift and full fury of one of the toughest and most highly acclaimed U.S. Army Reserve drill sergeants in the country. One bird species on that list was the mourning dove.

Mourning doves are one of the most widely distributed birds in North America. They are found breeding across Wisconsin, but are more common south of U.S. 8 than they are further north. A pair of doves will build a nest and lay two eggs, which they cooperatively hatch. They also work together to feed their young. They can repeat the nesting and rearing process with up to 5 pairs of chicks in a single season. The mourning dove was named the state symbol of peace in 1971, and became a legal game species in 2001; the first dove season was held in 2003.

Mourning doves are the most hunted migratory game bird species in the United States. When I worked in Kansas, there were abundant waterfowl and quail, but dove hunting was special. I don’t recall a hunting season in that area that generated more excitement than dove season. Here in Wisconsin, it is a slightly different story. In 2016-17, almost 8,000 people reported hunting doves in 2016, harvesting around 62,000 birds. This number of hunters is about 5,000 lower than the season five years earlier. If you compare the same 2016-17 hunting season, there were over 43,000 pheasant hunters and over 66,000 ruffed grouse hunters! Dove hunting is not mainstream anywhere here, but it is definitely more common in areas south of us—the top three counties for dove hunting were Fond Du Lac, Manitowoc, and Dodge counties according to hunter surveys.

The dove season opens September 1 statewide. Unlike some other kinds of hunting, you can start mourning dove hunting with relatively little gear; camouflage at a minimum, and maybe a few decoys if you want to get more sophisticated. Find a spot where there is a grassy or weedy opening with a couple of scattered trees, maybe near a stream or pond, and where you can be fairly well concealed. You will need a small game hunting license. Because doves are a migratory bird, you will need to be HIP certified and have a plug in your shotgun. If you are on state lands such as the state forest or wildlife areas, or the willow flowage property, you will need non-toxic shot. A retrieving dog is a good idea; in fact, the dove hunters I have spoken with have said it is a great way to get your dog trained up on retrieving.

I don’t hunt doves myself. I have considered it, especially since I have heard it is extremely fun, great for getting youth into hunting, and the meat is delicious. From a professional perspective, I feel that harvest of doves makes good use of a renewable resource, and with careful monitoring the population will continue to thrive while providing hunting opportunities. Right now, an estimated 6% or less of Wisconsin’s fall dove population is harvested annually. Wisconsin dove numbers have continued to rise steadily by 1% annually over the last 40 years. We are taking great care of our doves.

I have some animals that I would choose not to hunt or eat because of the role they play in my life. The mourning dove is one of them. Maybe it’s because my wife has said she isn’t sure she would eat dove meat. Maybe it’s because they feed at my bird feeder, drink from my water garden and raise their young in my back yard. Maybe it’s because deep down, I am still that little boy with a BB gun looking into his father’s eyes for approval. Or, maybe it’s a little of all those things. But for right now, I don’t hunt doves.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked Biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.