For the Birds Radio Program: Mourning Dove Survey
How does the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manage the most heavily hunted game bird in the country? Laura Erickson explains why doves aren’t hunted in Minnesota or Wisconsin. 3:32
(Date is definite)
Once every spring I get up at 3:30 am, drive to the Morris Thomas Road in Solway Township, west of Duluth, and go 25 miles along a specified route, stopping exactly every mile, jumping out of my car, and listening hard for three minutes, trying to hear a Mourning Dove, as a volunteer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Although Mourning Doves aren’t rare up here, this is harder than it sounds. My area is one of the furthest north of all official Mourning Dove census routes, and cuts through some prime north woods, which is hardly suitable Mourning Dove habitat. But the route also runs through pasture and along some railroad tracks, so in the seven years I’ve run it, I’ve usually had one or two Mourning Doves. This year I saw one and heard a total of three. Of course, most of the thousand routes run in the United States get a heck of a lot more doves than I do—routes in North Dakota, the Mourning Dove capital of the universe, average over 40 per route. Minnesota routes average between 10 and 20. The western half of the state is rich in doves even if the northeastern quadrant isn’t. Wisconsin routes average fewer than 10.
Mourning Dove survey data is helpful in determining management techniques—Mourning Doves are, after all, the most abundant game bird in the country, legally hunted in 35 states. These birds are fairly small, but by all accounts from people and hawks, they taste really good. I personally never eat wild birds—they could be somebody I know. But in 1989, the last year from which records have been published, 41.3 million doves were taken by about 2.3 million U.S. hunters. Mourning Doves are not a game bird in any New England state or in New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, or Minnesota. Every year, somebody proposes a Mourning Dove hunting season in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and although the Mourning Dove population in western Minnesota would almost definitely easily support a hunt, the forested parts of these states simply don’t have enough doves to justify shooting them. Also, even though Minnesota’s western population is large, these birds are already being shot at once they migrate south each fall. Opening a season here might constitute a form of double jeopardy for our doves. So unless hunters get really desperate for new targets, our doves will probably keep their predicted status.
My Mourning Dove route may not have many doves, but there are plenty of other birds to hear. This year’s migration was so late that many things I usually hear weren’t back yet, but I did have a pleasant time listening to Soras and bitterns in the marshes, and Winter Wrens, warblers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and orioles in the woods. Unfortunately, I got there barely in time to start censusing this year. When I get there 15 or 20 minutes early, it’s still dark enough to hear owls and woodcock. But the dawn chorus was delightful even without the prelude, and the star attraction—the three Mourning Doves I found—made the performance complete.