For the Birds Radio Program: Dove Hunt Referendum in Ohio

Original Air Date: Nov. 11, 1998

In Ohio, this year’s ballot included a referendum about whether the state should rescind its Mourning Dove hunt. The initiative lost.

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In this year’s election, the State of Ohio defeated an attempt to close their Mourning Dove season. It was a highly-charged emotional campaign on both sides. The pro-Mourning Dove hunting side had the audacity to run a commercial with a woman talking about how she owed her child’s life to medical research on animals, the point of the commercial being that if the Mourning Dove season was closed, animal rights activists would cause children to die. Meanwhile, the anti-dove hunting side didn’t give logical reasons why dove hunting should end. Many of the most vociferous opponents to dove hunting are opposed to all hunting, and so they fueled the charge that this was a first step in an attempt to ban all hunting. Some dove hunting opponents maintained that doves should be relegated the protection due all songbirds, but that runs counter to ornithology—despite their mourning song, doves are not classified as true songbirds at all, belonging with pigeons to a separate order with a long tradition as a game bird.

Like most native birds, Mourning Doves are classified legally as migratory birds, and so their protection is vested in the Secretary of Interior, who permits each state to regulate dove hunting within federal limits. Currently, hunting is permitted in all but eleven states. Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, and all the New England states except Rhode Island protect doves. Ohio only recently, in 1994, opened hunting to include doves. It makes sense that the states that protect it are northern ones. Doves are not only more numerous further south, but they also migrate there from the north. People in Minnesota would be shooting almost entirely Minnesota-bred birds, while people in Texas hunt both the doves that breed there and those that breed to the north, so hunting pressure on Texas-bred birds is lower than it would be on Minnesota-bred birds if they were hunted here.

Historically, there is a long tradition of pigeon and dove hunting—an honorable history if we listen to dove hunting advocates, shameful if we listen to people citing the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, which did look like a large, exceptionally vivid Mourning Dove. Ironically, the last Passenger Pigeon of them all died in an Ohio zoo. But Passenger Pigeons were wiped out by shameless market hunters, and there was little effort to protect them even as their imminent extinction became obvious. This couldn’t happen with the regulations currently protecting birds.

Neither side in Ohio was taking a historical viewpoint—hysterical was more like it. No one on either side was providing data to indicate that the species is either too abundant to stop hunting them or too uncommon to support a hunt. Neither side talked about the ecological ramifications of the hunt. The anti-hunting side did not discuss specifically how a dove hunt is uniquely inhumane, or why doves should be treated differently from other game birds. Despite their pleasant ways, Mourning Doves are NOT the bird of peace—that distinction belongs to white Rock Doves. Right now, Mourning Doves are the single most-hunted bird in the nation. In the last year for which an accurate estimate was made, 1989, about 2.3 million people shot 41.3 million doves, and yet their numbers remain stable and strong.

So on the dove hunting issue, I can’t find a compelling rational reason to sway my opinion on either side. Personally, I find the thought of killing doves repugnant, and couldn’t bring myself to eat one. But should there be a dove hunt? To be honest, I don’t have the foggiest idea.