For the Birds Radio Program: Mourning Dove Season

Original Air Date: Jan. 21, 2000

Should Minnesota and Wisconsin start allowing dove hunting?

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A controversial issue facing both Wisconsin and Minnesota is whether or not we should adopt a Mourning Dove hunting season. The Mourning Dove is the most widely-hunted game bird in the United States. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s most recent estimate, from 1989, about 41.3 million doves are killed annually by hunters in the 36 states in which dove hunting is legal. But there is no dove season in many of the northernmost states, including all of New England, Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Two years ago, a dove season began in Ohio following the kind of ugly, acrimonious debate that left people on both sides bitter to this day.

Hunters are justifiably concerned about the nasty anti-dove-hunting rhetoric thundering through Wisconsin and Minnesota. Many people opposed to dove hunting are opposed to all hunting, and don’t introduce any arguments specific to shooting doves but go on and on about the so-called cruelty and violence of hunting. I’m an affirmed non-hunter, but I don’t mind grouse, pheasant, duck, or goose seasons—these are steeped in tradition and are pleasures I’d never deny a hawk or falcon, so I’m not going to deny them to my fellow humans. But to me the Mourning Dove deserves the same protection as songbirds, at least here in Minnesota and Wisconsin. In the same way that the Supreme Court decided that the tomato may be a fruit botanically but as far as people go serves the purpose of a vegetable, the Mourning Dove may not be a song bird taxonomically, but serves that purpose as far as our upper-Midwestern culture goes. There have been so many years without a dove hunt here that it’s not part of hunting tradition anymore, and feeding doves and enjoying their soft manner and lovely song is part of the backyard birding tradition. That’s part of the reason I oppose a dove season.

Another reason perhaps is inspired by my upbringing as a Catholic—that we humans owe a penance for past sins. The species that was the most abundant land bird on the planet in the 1700s, the Passenger Pigeon, was hunted to extinction in the late 1800s, and the last one ever seen in the wild was shot in Babcock, Wisconsin, in 1899. The Passenger Pigeon looked like a beautiful, oversized Mourning Dove. After we destroyed an entire species, nature has the right to exact a penalty.

These arguments are, of course, based as much on emotion as reason, but I’ve yet to hear a hunter give a reason to hunt doves that isn’t also based on emotion. Why do they want to shoot doves? Just because they enjoy their sport and want to extend the enjoyment to other species.

I also have a couple of reason I oppose a dove season that are based on wildlife management. First, Minnesota and Wisconsin are at the extreme northern limits of the Mourning Dove’s range. Every bird shot in our states would be one that bred here—in the southern states, hunters are shooting their own doves and those that migrate from other states, including Minnesota and Wisconsin, so our birds would get a double whammy. Also, doves are small and quick, and it is all too easy to mistake other birds for doves when adrenaline is flowing. In a well-publicized incident in 1994, George W. Bush shot a bird he thought was a dove, even after holding it in his hand and breaking its neck because it wasn’t quite dead when he picked it up. TV cameras showed that Bush’s trophy was in reality a Killdeer. Bush willingly turned himself in and paid a $130 fine for shooting a protected species, but the mistake would never have been caught, and Bush himself would never have realized what he’d done, if not for the journalists accompanying him. Many hunters who make that mistake might never even realize it had happened. I sometimes wonder just how many of those 4.3 million doves shot each year aren’t doves at all.

We must never forget the Passenger Pigeon and the Heath Hen, both forever extinct because of over-hunting. The Eskimo Curlew is probably also extinct, again destroyed by hunting. But hunters have protected more wetlands and forest habitats than non-hunters usually admit, and like birders, most of them are decent human beings. They’ve more than earned the right to maintain the honorable elements of their traditions. But I strongly believe that we should draw the line at changing the status of a beloved symbol of peace that is part of a new tradition—that of treasuring and protecting the birds that bring beauty and song to our lives.