For the Birds Radio Program: Mourning Dove Hunting
Mourning Dove Hunt
When I started birding in 1975, one of my favorite discoveries was the Mourning Dove. This endearing bird, with its mournful but lovely call, subdued yet handsome plumage, and gentle ways, was easy to see and hear even when I was just a beginner. I lived in Michigan at the time, then moved to Wisconsin, and finally to Minnesota, and all three were among the 10 or so states that had prohibited Mourning Dove hunting for generations. The forested northern states—that is, the Great Lakes and New England States, traditionally haven’t had a dove season because the population of doves in these states is significantly lower than the population in the southern and Great Plains states, and has a much lower reproduction rate, and Minnesota’s dove population has been declining significantly—over the past 10 years, the population has dropped over 5% per year, mainly, I suspect, in the western part of the state where the doves are more numerous than the forested northeast. When I contributed money to all of these states’ non-game species programs, I naturally expected that my donations were to help birds like Mourning Doves, who live in habitat that in some cases overlaps that of game species, but also feed and nest right in backyards and agricultural areas.
Mourning Doves are the most heavily hunted game bird in America. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US population of Mourning Doves is about 400 million, and about 6 percent, or 24 million, are killed by hunters each year. Last year in Wisconsin alone, which has a much smaller Mourning Dove population than many of the traditional dove hunting states, hunters took over 200,000 doves.
Although the population of Mourning Doves has declined in the past decade, I don’t believe hunting has been a significant factor—the species has suffered from changes in agriculture, with more and more cattle grown on feedlots rather than pastures, and more intensive corporate agriculture practices damaging what little remnant grassy and shrubby habitat remains. I’m afraid the days of fencerows and fallow fields are just about over.
In the past two years, Wisconsin and Minnesota have adopted a dove hunt despite the population declines. Since the species hasn’t been hunted in these states in generations, most dove hunters are inexperienced. And identifying flying doves is tricky—even in Texas, where dove hunts have always been a tradition, hunters can easily mistake other rapidly flying birds for doves. One of the few times a dove hunter was filmed for television in Texas, he killed a Killdeer, and despite his experience and that of his companions, not one of them realized, either before he shot it or after he was holding it in his hand, that it was a protected species, not a dove at all. You’d think after that the Minnesota DNR would provide all kinds of hunter education opportunities for hunters to learn the differences between doves and similar species, but on their website, they provide photos only of a few perched birds, none of which looks the least bit like a dove as it’s shown. The Wisconsin DNR does a bit better, providing line drawings of a flying killdeer, kestrel, and nighthawk, but they don’t point out the subtle but important differences in silhouette when field marks aren’t visible. Also, neither state prohibits the use of toxic lead shot in dove hunting, even though plenty of studies have established that doves do pick up lead shot as grit. The Minnesota DNR website at least encourages hunters to use non-toxic shot—the Wisconsin DNR ignores the issue completely, even though this hunt may introduce toxic shot to fields where Bobolinks and other protected songbirds raise their young.
I’m not opposed to hunting doves in principle—as I said, this is the most abundant, and the most popular game bird in the nation. But dove hunting is controversial in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and both state DNRs depend on contributions to their non-game funds at a time when many people who care about non-game feel betrayed that it was so easy to designate a popular backyard feeder bird as a game species. So one would think that both state DNRs would make a good-faith effort to limit the potential harms of the season by requiring non-toxic shot and providing hunter education to ensure that protected species that we’re contributing non-game funds to protecting stay protected. One would think so, but apparently one would be wrong.