By Joe Noble 

If you’ve ever hunted mourning doves, you know how challenging they are to bring down. They fly and flit about like aerial acrobats. You point the shotgun at one, squeeze the trigger, and somehow the bird keeps flying. And then, after about four or five inexplicable misses, a bird drops—just enough reinforcement to want to keep hunting them. Although remarkably challenging, dove hunting is great fun, and a safe, enjoyable way to introduce kids to hunting. 

Each year hundreds of thousands of Americans go afield to hunt doves. Using a variety of shotgun bores, from .410 to 12-gauge, hunters seek out open fields, the edges of small patches of woodlands and even open meadows in forests to take some shots at these nimble birds. 

The birds are found in every state, even outlier Hawaii; and they inhabit most of the world’s countries. They are this continent’s most numerous game; and hunting them is North America’s most popular hunting activity. Dove is also the most popular game bird in the world.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) manages the dove population under the Migratory Bird Act of 1918 for the United States. According to its “Mourning Dove Population Status, 2010” report, the continental population is estimated at 350 million birds. They are hunted in 39 states (in 2011 Iowa becomes the latest state to begin a dove hunting season) with an average year’s harvest of about 20 million birds. The harvest number has remained consistent for at least a decade. 

“Mourning doves are the most hunted game bird in the U.S.,” said Mark Seamans, Wildlife Biologist for the USFWS. Seamans leads much of the Service’s dove research and management efforts. “It’s the most harvested game species, in part probably because it’s one of the most accessible hunting sports. You’re going to see the animals and get shots at it. That’s what people want, is a chance to get some game.”

Dove hunting is a fantastic opportunity to introduce children to hunting. Because it is an upland hunting experience, it is easier to control, therefore safer, for introducing young people to the sport. Unlike other game—waterfowl, deer, elk, bear, wild turkey, etc.— that require specialized equipment, traveling challenging terrain and/or special hunting skills, dove hunting requires the basics of firearms safety and an open field. 

A Peruvian friend and international hunter, José “El Flaco” Giha, commented that hunting doves is good for children’s shooting development. He explained that in order to shoot doves one has to take a lot of shots; the average is five shots for every bird harvested. Dove hunters pull the trigger a lot, and for kids, his reasoning goes, the more they shoot at game the better. “It makes them want to become better shooters, because they have to if they want to take home a dove,” he said. “It’s exciting to shoot a gun at a bird. More kids should do it.”

“Two boxes of shells per 10 birds in the bag is the worldwide average,” said El Flaco. “But dove hunting can be a family event. And it should be. It is fun and safe.”

Although there is no way to confirm El Flaco’s 5-1 ratio, I have heard many researchers and hunters repeat it throughout the years.

“I would agree that it is a nice way to introduce kids to hunting,” Seamans said. “There are a lot of birds and hunters will get shots.”

Start Them Young

It was just a few years ago that I introduced my kids to the sport. The air was warm, the sun hot, that morning. We pulled alongside the picked wheat field we’d been scouting for a few days. The doves were active. 

Two adults and four children, between the ages of four and 11, piled out of the truck. The adults were anxious to shoot a few birds and the kids were happy to be afield together. Their chattering broke the otherwise quiet morning.

It was just after sunrise when we nestled in against bails of wheat straw near the edge of the 30-acre field. The wheat had been recently harvested; doves flew in to pick at the spilled grain and flew out to roost and drink.

It took some time to settle down the kids. We had to teach them to watch for the doves and be still as the birds flew toward us. Before long, they quickly became adept at sighting birds and standing still as the doves came near and the shooting began.

I took six shots before my first dove dropped amid the rows of wheat stubble. Doves seem to have an uncanny knowledge of the range of a 20-gauge, and stay just outside of it. That, or they have figured out how to maneuver unscathed through a pattern of 9-shot.

The kids wanted to make the retrieve, so I held back the dog and sent them. They ran into the field and searched like, well, dogs, until one of them finally found the bird. Upon their return, they inspected the dove for the shot wound, explored its feathers and wings, and carried on a conversation about what it had been eating. A short time later, my companion dropped another dove. The children dutifully retrieved it. Shortly after that, the kids each took turns shooting at some birds, as well. 

After two hours of hunting, we had taken 68 shots and collected 12 birds. The children retrieved all 12 birds and 68 spent shells. They were ready to return home and prepare the birds for dinner. 

Safety First

To include children in a dove hunt, consider all the same safety aspects as any hunt. Wearing camo can create some visibility concerns, however, unlike waterfowl or wild turkey hunting, the children can sit somewhat visible, making it safer.

Consider chambering only one shell at a time. This creates more control and removes the possibility of a child accidently discharging a second shell. In addition, set specific hunting times for the kids. For example, adults hunt for 30 minutes, then put down their shotguns and then the children hunt for 30 minutes with close adult supervision. 

Bring water, especially in the early season. It can get hot. Kids will need extra water to stay hydrated.

Finally, remember that this is about getting the kids afield. Let them run around, even try to catch a few doves by hand. The more fun the kids have dove hunting, the more likely they will want to hunt in the future.

Doves By The Numbers

Prior to the 2010 report, a mid-1970s banding study served as the most accurate population study for the species. It had placed the population near 475 million birds. The difference in total population is likely due to different information-gathering techniques and population models. Whatever the model, the total population is relatively steady. The question then becomes: Which model best reflects the continent’s total population?

“There is still some uncertainty about the (350-million bird) number,” said Seamans. “But we have faith in what we’ve put in place to gather the population information. It will take time to gather the information. The number will likely go up or down as we collect more information.”

In part due to this discrepancy, the USFWS commenced a banding effort in the 48 contiguous states in 2007. Dove biologists in every state have been banding doves for several years. In Minnesota, for example, in 2009 alone more than 600 birds were banded. The banding effort is giving biologists an idea of migration patterns. For example, birds banded in 2007 in Minnesota were found in Kansas, Arizona, Texas and even Mexico; and they were shot by hunters all over. Yet that state’s population remains stable.

In other areas of the country dove populations are on the rise, and in still other areas they are declining. 

“We set the harvest based on harvesting the surplus birds,” Seamans explained. “Harvesting 20 million birds (out of a population of 350 million) is not a bad ratio at all. The population should be able to sustain that harvest.”

Seeds for Success

So, where will hunters find doves? Since they are the most abundant game bird in North America, the quick answer is almost everywhere. Specifically, doves have their favorite habitats. Doves frequent areas that have an abundance of small grains and seeds with relatively bare ground. Recently harvested grain fields are good areas, as are freshly planted grain fields. Other popular food sources are fields of sunflowers, beans and patches of weeds with seeds and relatively open ground. 

Sources of water need open ground where doves can land and walk to the edge to drink. Ponds ringed by high vegetation are less attractive to doves than are cattle ponds or even mud puddles.

Dove hunting is a very accessible sport. Very little equipment is needed, and because doves are plentiful, getting some good shots at the birds is fairly certain. However, doves fly fast, especially with a tail wind, and they rocker in flight, making them difficult to hit. You’re likely to shoot behind them, so don’t hesitate to give them a good lead. 

To increase your chances of seeing more doves, here are some general hunting techniques. Doves follow a general habit or flight pattern between feeding, watering and roosting areas. Knowing these patterns will allow you to set up for pass shooting. 

Also, setting decoys near food, water or roosting sites often attracts doves to your “blind” similar to waterfowl hunting. Placing dove decoys near your chair may attract birds into close range. You can use several different kinds of decoys, for example shell, full-body and mechanical decoys, all of which can be purchased from sporting-goods stores. Some hunters cut out dove silhouettes from cardboard. While they can be effective, keep in mind that doves have good eyesight and usually quickly become wary of such decoys. 

To set up the decoys, place several decoys on the ground amid a seed field, for example, a picked wheat field, and several more clipped to fences or the dead limbs of trees. Decoys tend to be most effective when spaced about a foot or two apart, and they should face the wind because doves take flight and land into the wind.

Finally, if you feel inclined to walk for a bit, hunt along a woodland acreage, such as a farm grove or windbreak near feeding fields and water. Be warned: doves are wary and often flush out of range; they also are adept at flushing through trees into denser cover, making your shot more difficult.

Don’t leave the dog at home. Doves are small and can be very difficult to find, once shot and on the ground. I’ve shot doves over mowed wheat stubble, beaten down field roads, the edge of a woodland and alfalfa field, and a half-acre wildlife food plot. In every case, I needed a bird dog to find the downed game. They just somehow “disappear” once they hit the ground.

Dove hunting seasons typically run from about September 1 in northern climes until after the New Year in southern states. The typical season is 60 days. Enjoy the hunt, and bring some kids with you. You may not bag a limit of doves today, but you will likely convert a kid to hunting for a lifetime.