By Lisa Williams, PGC Wildlife Biologist and Derek Stoner, Hunter Outreach Coordinator
Across the state of Pennsylvania each summer between the beginning of July and the middle of August, a dedicated team of biologists help capture and band hundreds of Mourning Doves. You might be surprised at the important information gleaned since 2003 from those shiny little rings on the leg of a dove. For instance, we know that most of the doves banded in Pennsylvania are recovered in the state. That tells managers that the majority of the annual Pennsylvania dove harvest is derived from Pennsylvania-breeding birds. In fact, the majority of Pennsylvania Mourning Doves are homebodies, traveling on average 54 miles from their banding location to the point of recovery.
Although the vast majority of doves that breed in Pennsylvania stay in the Commonwealth year-round, 11 percent of Pennsylvania-banded doves were recovered outside our borders. This indicates that the regulations we set for Pennsylvania impact our dove populations more so than dove regulations set by states to our north. Both short-distance and long-distance migration occurs, with an evident migratory pathway occurring between Pennsylvania and the Carolinas. Not content with wintering in the Southeast, one bird traveled 1,024 miles to Kansas and two Pennsylvania doves traveled 1,324 and 1,337 miles to reach Texas.
Banded doves also give us clues about dove hunters. For instance, we can tell from banded dove returns that dove hunting pressure is greatest in Pennsylvania during the September season segment, because that’s when 67 percent of all band recoveries occur. Conversely only 7 percent of band returns occur in the October/November dove season and just 5½ percent are encountered in December and January.
Record-setting dove life spans also can be documented through banding: Mourning Doves can live to be more than 30 years old! The national longevity record for a Mourning dove comes from a male dove banded in Georgia in 1968 and shot in Florida in 1998. Longevity records for doves in other regions of the U.S. range from 9 to 19 years. For doves banded in Pennsylvania, the record life span was held by a bird of at least 8½ years of age. This bird was banded as an adult near Reading in 2005, and was harvested by a hunter less than 2 miles away in December 2012. Our oldest dove recovered alive was ﬁrst banded at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area as an adult in 2007, then re-trapped and released by Game Commission biologist Jack Gilbert in the same location in 2012, making it at least 6½ years old.
How does this information about banding apply to hunting? Well, the techniques utilized by dove banders to select trapping areas relates directly to how hunters can select the best locations and times to hunt these speedy gamebirds.
All About the Seeds
In the world of doves, seeds are the number one food source year-round. Dove banders utilize piles of sunflower, millet, and safflower to attract hungry doves to their traps. Hunters cannot directly distribute seed (considered baiting, which is illegal) but they can select areas to hunt that have a density of seed sources. Classic locations like harvested cornfields, mowed right-of-ways, and the edges of weedy fields all provide the type of seed-eating opportunies that doves desire. Fields of Foxtail, Goldenrod, Smartweed and other native plants are often top attractions as well. The new Managed Dove Field program allows for the manipulation of crops and plants, so ambitious hunters are allowed to mow, disc, plow or otherwise knock down vegetation to make the seeds more accessible to doves.
Open Areas of Dirt and Gravel
Doves and all seed-eating gamebirds need to consume “grit” (hard substrates like sand, gravel, and small rocks) in order to help grind up the hard seeds they swallow whole. The grit goes to the bird’s crop, where it mashes up the seeds like a blender. If hunters set up near gravel lanes, large patches of bare dirt, and other open places with plenty of grit, they boost the odds in their favor of seeing doves stop by regularly.
Powerlines, Wires, and Perching Posts
Doves are hard-wired to fear predators at all times and are renowned for being ultra-wary and easily spooked. As such, they typically prefer to land on a high lookout to check out an area before deciding the location is safe enough to warrant a landing on the ground. There is no secret that doves love to perch on telephone wires along roads, as well as any horizontal line that stretches across open ground. Hunters can do well by scanning their hunting area with binoculars to see where doves are setting up and landing on wires, and then set up appropriately to shoot safely near these preferred perch locations. Many hunters are wisening up to the dove act and now construct their own “dove lines” made of posts and wire (like an old-fashioned laundry line) that encourage doves to land on and allow for close shots at slow-moving doves as they commit to the landing.
Doves prefer to roost and hang out during the middle of the day in dense-leaved trees where they can hide from the eyes of predators like hawks. Cedar, pine, spruce, and other evergreens are often preferred, and dove hunters are wise to set up near this locations if they want to intercept these doves headed to roost. If hunting during mid-day hours, it may be wiser to set up near roost trees rather than stake out a feeding area that will not see many doves in the warmer part of the day.
Water Sources: Ponds and Puddles
In order to process all those dry seeds and grains in their crops, doves need to drink plenty of water each day. Therefore, small bodies of shallow water like ponds, livestock watering holes, and puddles are a necessity for everyday dove life. The main feature of these water sources that doves require is an edge that is free of vegetation that could hide predators. That’s why often temporary waters like puddles seem to attract doves most consistently. Hunt over a water source during the warmer parts of the day and you just might find yourself in the middle of a dove bonanza.
Best of luck to all the folks heading afield to hunt doves this Fall. These sporty gamebirds are the most widely-hunted and frequently-harvested of all birds in North America, and with a continental population of 500 million-plus, there are plenty to go around. If you happen to get lucky and harvest a banded dove, please let us know!