For the Birds Radio Program: Mourning Dove Season

Original Air Date: March 22, 2004

Laura went down to St. Paul to testify about the proposed Mourning Dove season, but dirty tricks were the order of the day. (7:27)

Audio missing


Last Wednesday, a subcommittee of the Minnesota State Environment and Natural Resources Committee was scheduled to take testimony and vote on proposed legislation to open a Mourning Dove hunting season in the state. I drove three hours to St. Paul to testify, but when I arrived and they passed out the agenda for the afternoon, it turned out that the senator who proposed the legislation had taken it off the agenda. No one in the room seemed to have appeared to speak on behalf of the bill—apparently proponents had been notified in plenty of time. Later the proposed bill was added to the agenda for the following evening, when I wasn’t available. Anyone who believes that both sides of an issue deserve a reasonably full airing before decisions are made was served poorly by this dirty trick.

Mourning Doves haven’t been hunted in Minnesota since five years before I was born, and I’m not exactly a spring chicken. Because so many hunters will be inexperienced at hunting doves, I’m concerned that few hunters will be proficient at species recognition. I’ve noticed time and time again up at Hawk Ridge that even experienced birders, with expensive optics, aren’t always sure what they’re seeing when a medium-sized, fast-flying bird with pointed wings zooms past. American Kestrels, Merlins, Robins, Killdeer, and other birds of similar size and shape, birds that my Non-game Program donations are supposed to be protecting, will most assuredly be shot by inexperienced hunters—and they’ll just about all be inexperienced to start with. Several years ago in Texas, where dove-hunting is a long-standing tradition, there was a well-publicized case of a political candidate, one who went dove hunting every year, taking the news media along on a hunt. He winged one bird, and picked it up and wrung its neck in full view of the crew, some of whom probably were dove hunters themselves. And not one of them realized, until it was on the TV news that night and a viewer noticed and called the station, that the bird wasn’t a Mourning Dove at all—it was a Killdeer. If even an experienced hunter and several eye-witnesses can mistake a Killdeer for a dove, how many non-doves will be shot when thousands of inexperienced dove hunters take to the fields?

The Non-Game Wildlife Program of the Minnesota DNR gets 90 percent of its funding from voluntary donations from people like me, who contribute to protect backyard birds and all the other species taht aren’t benefited directly by hunter licenses and taxes. The very name “chickadee check-off” demonstrates how closely allied in public perception this popular program is with backyard feeder birds like chickadees and Mourning Doves. A lot of us who have been giving our money to the DNR feel a sense of betrayal that one of our most beloved backyard birds could suddenly, for no compelling reason, lose non-game status. Long ago, people cooked robins in pies. What assurance do we have that if hunters suddenly got hungry to shoot robins or any other beloved non-game bird, the DNR wouldn’t reclassify them next?

It’s not like hunter taxes and fees pay for Mourning Dove habitat. That’s the province of farmers and backyard birdwatchers, who provide the bulk of their food and nesting sites. Because of the decline of small family farms, the long term trend of Mourning Dove numbers in Minnesota during the breeding season, according to the 2002 US Fish and Wildlife Service Mourning Dove Population Status Report, is that they’ve been decreasing, both since the survey started in 1966 and in just the past 10 years. I’ve been one of the people who conducts an official Mourning Dove survey route for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—providing data they use to prepare their annual reports. Every May since 1989, I’ve headed out and listened and watched on a prescribed 20-mile route west of Duluth, recording every dove I see or hear. In my area, the most doves ever counted was 5. Most years I find only one or two. This contrasts with the overall average for the Central Unit states of slightly over 22 per route. That’s because the northern forest isn’t habitat for doves. The only doves I ever find on my 20-mile route are near houses with feeders. And because the Great Lakes forms the northern extreme for this species’ range in the east, just about all the doves that would be hunted in Minnesota would be ones that hatched here. Our birds are already hunted when they cross into South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas—mostly states with long breeding seasons where Mourning Doves produce far more young per year than they do here.

Also, lead is such a serious problem in Minnesota that the DNR is going to a lot of expense to get anglers to switch to non-lead sinkers. We’ve paid a lot of money to rescue Trumpeter Swans and Bald Eagles that were suffering from lead poisoning, mostly from the lead shot that waterfowl hunters once used. Lead simply doesn’t go away. We’ve finally started paying attention to lead in wetlands and on lakes and rivers. But problems associated with lead extend to upland habitats as well. For many years I was licensed by the DNR and the US Fish and Wildlife Service as a rehabilitator. From that experience and from my readings as an ornithologist, I know that a great many birds, particularly seed-eating species such as northern finches and grassland sparrows, pick up grit on the ground to help with digestion. When lead shot is picked up, it’s slowly ground down in the gizzard, releasing lead into the blood stream. It’s dramatic when an eagle or swan is taken ill. But who would even notice a meadowlark or a Horned Lark thrashing around in the tall grass, before a passing hawk picks it up and gets a load of shot in its own digestive system? It’s bad enough lead is still legally used for grouse and woodcock and other upland game birds. Why is the DNR even considering allowing hunters to use lead shot for a whole new hunt?

If you’re concerned about this issue, or if you think it’s wrong for a subcommittee to play dirty tricks with their agenda schedule to make their opponents drive half-way across the state to attend meetings that aren’t going to happen, ask your senator to vote against the Mourning Dove hunt.