Alabama ranks highest as the migration destination for doves.
Dove season is upon us, and dove hunters throughout the state are readying their shotguns and gear for opening day. The challenge of the hunt, as well as the tradition and opportunity for camaraderie, make this wing-shooting sport a favorite among hunters.
The dove is the most widely harvested game bird in the country, as well as in Alabama. According to Chris Cook, wildlife biologist for Alabama’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, approximately 60,000 licensed hunters hit the fields each year for dove. And approximately 1.4 to 1.6 million doves are harvested by those hunters each year.
“We mail out a licensed hunter survey, which provides us with our estimated harvest data for all of the game species,” Cook says. “The number of doves harvested has remained fairly consistent over recent years.”
The mourning dove, named for its mournful call, is an interesting species with many qualities unique to its kind. It’s adeptness at adaptation allows it to nest in every state but Alaska. The average mourning dove weighs only four to five ounces and is decked out in a variety of shades of brown and gray with black spots on the back and wings. The undersides of the tail feathers are prominently tipped in white and feature a band of black leading into light grey.
Most assume that male and female doves look alike, but in actuality, the male’s head has a pale bluish color on the top and back, and he is more brightly colored overall with neck feathers that have a hint of iridescent lavender, pink or purple mixed with metallic gold and brown. The female’s head is brown or tan and her neck colors are usually light brown as well.
Mourning doves are known to nest as far south as Central America (especially in Mexico) and as far north as Southern Canada. Most doves in the continental U.S. migrate in the fall, but some hardier doves spend the winter in latitudes as far north as Indiana and Connecticut.
“We conduct a dove-banding project each July,” Cook says. “Through this project, we’ve learned that birds banded in Alabama are killed primarily by Alabama hunters. So, for the most part, the birds that are born in this state do not migrate from this state. But we do get a lot of doves from other states. In fact, we rank first or second in the country as a migration destination for out-of-state doves. We get doves from at least 11 different states.”
Southern doves are also busy parents. In some parts of the South, a pair of doves may experience six hatches a season. Generally, the farther north they are during spring and summer, the fewer hatches they’ll have.
Doves spend a little more than a month building a nest, incubating two eggs and caring for the nestlings. Then they start all over again.
Courtship begins in early spring with reciprocal cooing and rubbing of bills. It continues off and on throughout the breeding season. Mated pairs often build nests in clearings and along the edges of fields, pastures and orchards. The female usually lays one egg the first day after the nest is built and lays the second one the next day. Occasionally a dove will lay three eggs.
“Incubation lasts two weeks,” Cook says. “After the baby doves hatch, both parents care for them. They are able to fly and leave the nest by two weeks, although they’re not immediately self-sufficient. The male will continue to feed the babies while they mature and learn to find seeds. During the same time, the female lays eggs again. Doves have so many offspring because they have such a high mortality rate. It’s nature’s way of balancing things out.”
Most biologists believe a pair of doves mate only for a season and not for life. At the end of the mating season, the birds scatter and make up new flocks, which may spend the winter at home or migrate to the lower half of the U.S. or Mexico.
Despite the immense and healthy dove population, Alabama’s hunting season is fairly short, lasting from October through January with breaks in between.
“The state is divided into a north and south zone with a split season,” Cook says. “Both zones hunt the same number of days, but the south zone starts a little later in the season. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gives us a length and number of days we can hunt in each state based on their studies of the dove population. We’ve split the season to spread it out a little bit, giving people the opportunity to do some late-season hunting.
So, this fall, get out into the open fields and enjoy some wing shooting with your hunting buddies. Dove hunting is the ideal way to begin your hunting season and it’s also a perfect opportunity to introduce a youngster or newcomer to hunting and the outdoors.