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Dove Season Prep: Don't Wing It
A Chat with Tom Hughes, NWTF's director of research and outreach

Q: I enjoy bow hunting and have tried to do it on several of my turkey hunts. I was considering using my old Bear recurve bow on doves. I know of folks who have been successful on larger upland game birds. Have you or anybody you know ever tried bow hunting doves? Should a special arrow be used designed to not travel far?
— Harry Barber, Kanab, Utah

A: Harry, if you decide to hunt doves with a bow, and actually kill one flying, my hat will definitely be off to you! I suggest you use flu-flu arrows, which have big fletching and are designed to slow down quickly, with Snaro bird points. Click here to see a picture. — Tom Hughes, NWTF director of research and outreach

Q: When doves take flight, do they leave the ground directly in a forward motion, or do they move backward a bit first before taking off, like a housefly?
— Jorene Burgess, Camden, Ohio

A: Careful observation of the doves in my backyard confirms what I thought when first reading this question; they leave the ground directly in a forward motion. They are pretty quick about it, too, especially when Buddy the Boykin Spaniel is chasing them.

Q: We are getting some Eurasian collared doves in my hunting area. Do they nest as often and reproduce the same as mourning doves?
— Russell Porter, Brookesmith, Texas

A: Eurasian collared doves nest and reproduce almost exactly like mourning doves; about three to six nests per year with two eggs per nest.

Q: What is the recipe and procedure for the best dove field we can plant and manage in our area of west-central Georgia?
— Jackie Robinson, Box Springs, Ga.

A: I'm not sure there is one perfect dove field for any location, but I will say that black oil sunflowers come close for many fields. In your area of Georgia, plant sunflowers in late April, in rows 36 inches apart, with 8- to 10-inch spacing between seeds within the row.

Prior to planting, fertilize the field according to soil test results, and pre-plant incorporate trifluralin at two pints per acre to control annual grasses. Use Poast® over the top at two pints per acre plus the recommended surfactant if perennial grasses become a problem. The goal is to keep the ground under the sunflowers as weed-free as possible so that doves will be able to forage effectively for seed as the sunflowers mature.

If you anticipate considerable broadleaf competition, especially from sicklepod or pigweed, consider using Clearfield® sunflowers. These sunflowers are resistant to Beyond®, a broad-spectrum herbicide that controls many persistent broadleaf weeds that compete with sunflowers. In any case, as the sunflowers mature, mow only a few strips for access and to make some early seed available. Leave most of the sunflowers standing. Sunflower seeds last much longer if they remain in the seed head, and doves will eat them from the head after they fall to the ground.

Q: How far do you need to lead a bird? I'm having trouble on my first dove hunt of the year.
— Keith Addis, Newnan, Ga.

A: This is a good question, but a very difficult one to answer, since my perception of lead may not be the same as yours, and, of course, the required lead varies with distance and speed. The best advice I can give is to swing from behind the bird, pull the trigger as you pass him, and keep swinging. Keep your head down against the stock as you follow through.

A good analogy for wing shooting is trying to spray your bad little cousin with a water hose as he runs by you. To wet him, you have to point the hose in front of him. To really soak him, you have to keep swinging the hose ahead of him. Think of the stream of shot from a shotgun as performing much like water from a hose, and you should be on the right track for hitting those doves.

Q: What's the best shot to use for doves?
— David West, Carthage, Tenn.

A: I know hunters who swear by anything from No. 6 to No. 9 shot, and all these guys do well at shooting doves. However, for most hunters, including myself, No. 8 shot seems to perform the best. I find this size to be the best compromise between pellet energy and pattern density.

Q: Recently our community has become home to a new dove, at least for this part of Utah. The Eurasian collared dove has taken up residency and has caused a little confusion in the dove-hunting world. Our state wildlife agency has decided to include the ECD in our hunting proclamation but hunting them, which is allowed year around, does not count towards a hunter's mourning dove bag limit.

My question centers on the possible displacement of mourning doves by the ECD. The mourning dove migrates but the ECD is a year around resident now. What kind of long-term affects can we expect from this new move in and what, if anything, will happen to mourning doves? Will they cross breed? Are ECDs edible?
— Harry Barber, Kanab, Utah

A: At this point, I don't think anyone really knows all of what to expect from the Eurasian collared doves, but they have been around many parts of the country long enough for us to learn some things.

First, they don't appear to occupy quite the same niche as mourning doves — being more closely associated with small towns and human habitation in general than mourning doves. Some biologists describe the ECD as having a niche somewhere between mourning doves and pigeons, and from my personal observation, I would agree with that.

Second, they do not appear to be displacing mourning doves in any area that I am aware of, although they are certainly expanding their range. Interestingly, both mourning doves and white-winged doves are undergoing dramatic range expansions, too. In the early 1900s, mourning doves were rare above the Canadian border, and now they are one of the most common birds in Canada's agricultural belt. White-winged doves, once a south Texas species, are presently found over much of Texas, and are moving into Louisiana and Alabama.

I have seen no evidence that ECD are hybridizing with the other species, but I can personally attest that they are good to eat. We had a small sunflower field just outside of town, and about 20 percent of the doves coming into that field were ECD. However, that is the only planted dove field I've ever seen them use. Our other fields, which are further from town, have no ECD at all.

Q: What is the best location to plant a dove field? Some folks tell me the best place is on a ridge or higher elevation with water nearby. Others say bottomland with water close by. Please point me in the right direction.
— JD Abee, Lenoir, N.C.
NWTF Foothills Chapter President
North Carolina State Chapter board member

A: Most of the very best fields I have ever planted have been on the highest ground around. Bear in mind, though, that for much of our area of the South, the highest ground may be only a few feet above the lowest! Few of my fields have had water really close, but all had water within a few miles at the most. Power lines through or along the field often provide a convenient staging area for the doves, and seem to contribute to dove use of fields in which the wires are available.

Q: Are Eurasian collared doves included in the harvest limit for SCDNR rules since they are found in our region?
— Tom Boyce, Summerville, S.C.

A: According to SCDNR regulations, Eurasian collared doves may be taken during normal dove seasons and shooting hours, but they are not included in the bag limit.

Q: If you retrieve a bird and realize you have only injured it and not killed it, what is the most humane way to end its life?
— Hydie Kirkland, St. Matthews, S.C.

A: I pinch the neck, crushing the vertebrae and quickly killing the dove. I use my hands, but some hunters carry a tool made for that purpose.

Q: I live in Vermont and I was told we don't have a dove season because people wanted them protected as a songbird. How would you handle a campaign to re-open a dove hunting season in Vermont (where there are plenty of doves by the way)?
— Allen Godin, Morrisville, Vt.

A: Minnesota opened dove season in 2004 after widespread, successful efforts at lobbying the legislature. Wisconsin held a series of public meetings in 2000 in which it was determined that a majority was in favor of dove hunting, leading to establishment of their season. I think the key is a well-organized effort with as many conservation and sportsmen's groups involved as possible.

Q: Have you ever had a dove field taken over by hawks? Last year we had more and more hawks show up each week, and then one weekend there were no doves in the field at all — just hawks. It was a 10-acre field with 30 to 50 hawks.
— Douglas Griswold, Zephyrhills, Fla.

A: I have seen hawks hang around dove fields, occasionally chasing the doves, but I've never seen as many as what you describe. My guess is that most of these hawks are probably hunting rats or mice, which may be attracted to the seeds produced in a dove field. Doves definitely avoid hawks, though, and that may be why the doves have left your field. However, a peregrine falcon is the only raptor that I ever saw actually catch an unwounded dove.

Q: Last year I planted about one-third of an 11-acre field with brown top millet, chufas and milo, and it was next to our four-acre lake. We randomly burned a few pieces of it as the season progressed. Out of about 10 hunts, we only had two good hunts and only harvested maybe 50 birds total for the season — and that's with about seven hunters each trip.

Hoping to make it better this year, I planted the full 11-acre field and another five-acre field next to it. Thirty-five percent of the crop is corn and 35 percent is Egyptian wheat. The rest is a mix of several grains such as brown top millet, a few sunflowers, a few soy beans, a bunch of chufas and some milo.

I got married at 10 a.m. on opening day this year. We had planned a big dove shoot after the wedding when season came in at noon. We were disappointed. There weren't many doves around. There were a good many there during the summer and there is always a bunch in January and February, but season is not in at that time.

What could I possibly be doing wrong? I don't see why the sky is not dark with doves due to all the food I planted for them. Next year, I only plan to raise milo and chufas because they are my favorite and grow well in our area. Keep in mind that turkey hunting is my favorite, but this field is for turkeys and doves. I'm not as in to deer hunting as I am turkey and dove so they are not a concern. I am trying to have a place for about 10 dove hunts this season. What do I need to change?
— Shea Turner, Deer Park, Ala.

A: I have never had great luck using milo or Egyptian wheat in dove fields, and I have never seen doves come to chufa fields at all. If I were you, I'd plant several acres of chufa for the turkeys, and I'd plant the rest of your field in sunflowers, following the recommendations for planting that I've previously mentioned.

Q: If you plant a field of sunflowers to attract doves, is it illegal to add sunflower seeds after the field has been disked? The same goes for any harvest — could you add seed after disking? Or could you plant a winter crop early, say right before dove season opens?
— Patti Griffin, Monroe, N.C.

A: You can't add any seed to a dove field other than what you plant at the normal planting time at the legitimate rate for that crop. The key to legal planting for dove fields is to follow normal agricultural procedures for your area as established by your state agricultural extension service. You may mow, burn or otherwise manipulate a crop grown for doves to make the seed grown in the field more available. You may not harvest and redistribute the seed or bring in seeds that were not grown there into a field.

Q: What is the difference between white-tipped doves and white-wing doves? They recently restricted to no more than two white-tipped doves per day and I am not sure what these are. I can easily identify white-winged, mourning and Eurasian (ring-necked) doves, but have never seen a white-tipped dove.
— Kurt Toliver, Belton, Texas

A: I had to look this one up; I have never seen a white-tipped dove that I know of. What I found out is that this species does occur in southern Texas, which is the upper limit of their present range. They can be distinguished from white-winged, mourning and Eurasian collared doves by the fact that they have no white wing bars on any part of the wing. See this link for more details:

Q: Is the ringneck dove a huntable bird? If so, what is the limit, or do they count on your mourning dove or whitewing limit?
— Doug Flake, Texas City, Texas

A: If by "ringneck dove" you mean Eurasian collared dove, in Texas there is no closed season or bag limit. Click here for details on Texas Parks and Wildlife Department regulations.

Q: I have hunted doves over the years in various states and locations. I have been told that one of the most successful attractants for doves is a field with both seed crops and water. Doves will seek out areas that have a source of water.
— Sharon Henson, Georgetown, Texas

A: In the Southeast, water is readily available within a mile or two from just about any location, so I haven't found it necessary to pay much attention to planting my fields near water. In more arid areas, such as many parts of Texas, a nearby water source is likely to an important consideration in planning a dove field.

Q: In the drought regions of Texas, what is more effective in attracting dove water or food?
— Brett Scherer, Austin, Texas

A: Both are important. Which is more effective at attracting doves probably depends on which is in the shortest supply. If water is scarce and food is abundant, then the water source is likely to be the best bet.

Q: Here in Indiana starting last year I noticed that the doves my friend took had leg bands. In my 20-plus years of hunting doves I have never seen these on doves. He actually got two bands in one day of hunting. They were the only two doves he hit out of about 50 attempts. Then this year, another friend got a banded dove on our opening day. I can only suppose that the doves are being tracked as same as the ducks and geese are.

What are the leg bands used for, how are they tracked and can we see the tracking data?
— Brant Thacker, Indianapolis, Ind.

A: Indiana joined a nationwide mourning dove banding project in 2004. Click here for more information on the project, including data and band reporting.

Q: I've been a dove hunter for a long time. I feel that the most common mistake I make is to shoot at birds that are too far away. How can I tell if a dove is within range?
— James Slaton, Jackson, Ga.

A: Try picking out several landmarks around you and pacing off the distance prior to shooting. For most of us to make a clean shot, doves should be less than 35 yards away, and a little closer may be even better. With the distance to nearby landmarks known, you can judge when doves are in range and can react accordingly.

Q: The dove I see flying around my house looks like a turtle dove but has a white bar in the middle on its wing on the top side. In 2008 I saw only one. In 2009 I've seen three flying around in town. What kind of dove might I be seeing?
— Chris Rhoades, Hays, Kansas

A: The doves you describe are probably white-winged doves, which are expanding their range into Kansas. You also may see Eurasian collared doves, which have white tips to their tails, but lack the white wing bars.

Q: This should bring a few comments. Why does anyone want to hunt and kill this gentle bird with its delightful, cooing cry, which many consider a songbird, and which has been used for many, many years as a symbol of peace? The people of Michigan spoke loud and clear several years ago and said "NO" to dove hunting. Just curious. (Sorry, I just needed to let you know there are still some of us out here).
— David H. Eddy, Battle Creek , Mich.

A: You could also ask why anyone want to and hunt and kill wild turkeys or deer, or any other game species, and I think the answer is about the same: as much as some choose to ignore it, humans are hunters. Hunting is a huge part of our history as a species, and it has shaped who we have become. In the case of dove hunting, we are pursuing an abundant, very edible species, which provides many of us with a high-quality outdoor experience and a delicious meal. In much of the country, dove hunting is also an important social tradition, as well as an excellent introduction to hunting, providing a great experience to those who have newly discovered their hunting heritage.

Q: Why is it I can knock clays out of the sky all day long but a dove flies by and I can't hit any birds?
— Neal Cyr, Florence, Colo.

A: I think the fact that they are hard to hit is a huge part of the attraction of dove hunting. The enjoyment of hunting is in direct correlation to the "uncertainty of the pursuit," and hitting doves can certainly be uncertain! That said, shooting sporting clays (as opposed to skeet or trap) can be really good practice for dove hunting, especially at ranges that have a "dove tower."

Q: What is sesame? How do you plant it and at what time of the year? I have always planted millet for hay and that's the best food plot I know of and the deer don't mess it up.
— Gene Richardson, Norlina, N.C.

A: Sesame planted for doves is the same seed that you see on your hamburger bun, and doves like it at least as well as we do. Sesame produces a broadleafed, branched stalk, about 4 to 5 feet in height, with the seeds contained inside small pods.

Planting time is late spring or early summer, when soil temperature reaches 70 degrees. I row plant sesame in 36-inch rows at rate of two to three pounds per acre, and leave the plants standing after maturity. The pods break open slowly and the seeds fall to the ground throughout fall, assuring seed availability over a period of several months.

Sesame, once it has put down good roots, is very drought tolerant, making it a good choice for dryer areas. For more details on sesame, look for reruns of the "Sesame" dove field show on "Get in the Game." I like millet for doves, too, but the big drawback for me is that most of the millet seed is gone within a few weeks of maturity, and I like to hunt doves all season.

Q: Why is it that there is not a daily bag limit on the big ring neck doves?
— Kenneth Dunham, Delhi, La.

A: Ring neck doves (a.k.a. Eurasian collared doves) are considered an exotic species by state wildlife agencies and as such are not subject to the same regulations as native species.

Q: How can we convince the conservation department to open the dove season the first of August when the doves are still in our area? Every year my friends and I plant and maintain dove fields and every year we have a cold front about a week before the season opens and the doves leave. We sometimes have up to a thousand doves on our fields, but by season time we may not have 40 to hunt. Very disappointing!
— Terry Parsons, Lampe, Mo.

A: I'm not entirely sure how dove seasons are set in Missouri. I think the US Fish and Wildlife Service sets a broad guideline for beginning and ending dates with a certain maximum number of hunting days that must be within this time period, and the state sets their season within this framework.

At one time, states had to choose either a 70-day season with a daily bag limit of 12 doves or a 60-day season with a daily bag limit of 15. These rules have been liberalized, at least in some states, to a 70-day season with a daily bag limit of 15. Check with the Missouri Department of Conservation to be sure and to learn the earliest possible opening date allowed by federal law.

Q: If you don't have large areas to plant and have an overall small tract of land — less than 200 acres — how should you set your existing fields to attract doves? How small a field will doves come to?
— J. Claude Tindle, Birmingham, Ala.

A: See previous answers on what and where to plant.

As for field size, I have had great dove shoots on fields as small as three acres and as large as 100 acres. I plant as large a field as I can afford or as the location permits, but no matter the field size, I plan on a spacing of about 70 yards between hunters or about one hunter per acre. This spreads everyone out far enough to be safe but doesn't leave big gaps in the fields where the doves can fly by out of range.

One word of caution to everyone; never shoot at a dove when you can't see sky beneath it. In this case, the dove it is too low and your shot may hit another hunter.

Q: I plant dove proso, millet and sunflowers on about six to eight acres of fields. I have a light line running by it and, from time to time, there are as many as 50 birds on the wire. I understand that doves need a clean place to land and attempt to keep strips open for them.

With maturation taking place at different times, what do you suggest as to how to bush hog, burn or what have you? I seem to lose my birds when other crops such as peanuts and corn are being harvested in the county.
— Buzz Tyre, Pearson, Ga.

A: I suggest planting sunflowers as your central crop, using at least six of your eight acres for it. If you want an early attractant to the field, plant an acre of proso or millet on either side of the sunflowers.

As I mentioned in an earlier answer, keep the sunflowers clean with the proper herbicide and leave most of them standing all season. I usually only mow access strips through my sunflower fields; seed heads left standing last all the way through the season, and the doves will pick the seeds off the head. They will find those that fall to the clean ground, too. However, if dove numbers are falling off in your field as other crops are harvested, try mowing a few more strips. Sometimes a lot of fresh seed on the ground makes a difference.

Q: I participated in a wing survey where I sent in wings from my first two dove hunts. I had people tell me not to do it because if two many young birds were shot they would stop our early dove hunt. Is this true?
— Mark Weibler, Waterville, Ohio

A: Dove wing surveys are done to provide an indication of productivity and species composition of the harvest. We can't make good management decisions without good data, and this is one way to get it. As far as concerns that too many young birds might lead to harvest restrictions, I doubt that very much. Actually, seeing a lot of young birds in the harvest is a good sign that productivity is high, and such data could lead to more liberal seasons and bag limits.

Q: Ontario has no dove season. Is there a way to assess populations to see if they will support a hunt and would NWTF lobby Ontario to provide hunting if the bird population would support it?
— John Todd, Paris, Ontario

A: Ontario DNR can certainly assess provincial dove populations and make decisions on whether or not a hunting season is justified. Popular support for such a season could influence the DNR to decide to take action. I suggest you work with your local chapter and other sportsmen's groups to lobby Ontario DNR for a dove season. NWTF has a long history of assisting in efforts that promote hunting, and I'm confident we would help an organized effort here, too.

Q: My husband Roger and I have always planted corn for wildlife. I have not heard of planting sesame before but it sounds interesting. Where would we get the seeds and how would we plant them? Would hand slinging work? We are always ready to try something new.
— Treva Layne Campbell, Eagle Rock, Va.

A: See the previous answers on planting sesame. You may get a decent stand by broadcasting, but I much prefer to plant sesame with a row planter. That way I can control the seed depth and rate much better. I usually end up with clean ground between the rows, too, because a good sesame crop shades out a lot of weeds. You can find sesame seed by searching the Internet, or, in many places, you can have your local seed dealer order it.

Q: Right now in Arizona it is illegal to bait for doves. So how would you do this and still be legal and within the guidelines set by the Arizona Game and Fish Commission?
— Don Martin, Kingman, Ariz.

A: It is illegal to shoot doves over bait in every state. However, shooting over a properly prepared dove field is not baiting, and as far as I can tell from Arizona's dove regulations, is not prohibited. Check with your local game warden to be sure of what is legal in your area. Click here for federal dove hunting regulations, including a good description of legal and illegal dove hunting practices.

Q: Our season here in Missouri opened last week. Several friends and I hunted public land on the opening morning and had a great hunt. We were all out of the field early and left one other party behind with a lot of birds still flying. We figured there would still be plenty of birds for a second day's hunt. The field was also open for afternoon hunters.

We showed up the next morning to discover that the birds had either been shot out or chased away and that got us talking about ways to prolong the season for more than one day. We talked about having the area open in the morning or afternoon only, having closed days, limiting the number of used shells per person, etc. We have our own thoughts and would like to suggest some changes for next year's season. But, we thought you might address the question too.
— Travis Moore, Palmyra, Mo.

A: After years of managing a large dove club, I do have some thoughts on how to prolong your shooting. On private land, I suggest that all hunters agree to leave the field while there is still plenty of time for the doves to come in and feed. That way, they won't be forced to feed somewhere else, perhaps abandoning the field in the process.

For the same reason, don't shoot a field too often because the doves will leave and find an area with less disturbance. I have never seen a field that could be regularly shot more than once per week for any extended period. In many areas, public dove fields are managed this way, too, and doves stay in these fields all season.

Other possibilities for reducing pressure on public fields include a draw or other limited entry system, or limiting the number of shells each hunter can take to the field. In the case of the field you describe, I expect that the hunters stayed as late as they legally could, and the doves found somewhere else to feed for the next day.