Like many little boys, I had a BB gun growing up, as did my brothers. Dad had lists of birds that we could shoot or not shoot. Pigeons, grackles and starlings were permissible to shoot. Pretty much all other birds were not allowed, and rightfully so, as they were also protected by law.
But, on top of the layer of protection state and federal law afforded, some birds held the ultimate layer of protection: BIRDS THAT DAD REALLY LIKED. You had better never kill one of these, intentionally or unintentionally, because it would usher in the swift and full fury of one of the toughest and most highly acclaimed U.S. Army Reserve drill sergeants in the country. One bird species on that list was the mourning dove.
Mourning doves are one of the most widely distributed birds in North America. They are found breeding across Wisconsin, but are more common south of Hwy. 8 than they are to the north. A pair of doves will build a nest and lay two eggs, which they cooperatively hatch. They also work together to feed their young. They can repeat the nesting and rearing process with up to five pairs of chicks in a single season. The mourning dove was named the state symbol of peace in 1971, and became a legal game species in 2001; the first dove season was held in 2003.
Mourning doves are the most hunted migratory game bird in the United States. In Wisconsin, over 13,000 people reported hunting doves in 2011, harvesting over 90,000 birds. The season opens Sept. 1 statewide.
Unlike some other kinds of hunting, you can start mourning dove hunting with relatively little gear; camouflage at a minimum, and maybe a few decoys if you want to get more sophisticated. Find a spot where there is a grassy or weedy opening with a couple of scattered trees, maybe near a stream or pond, and where you can be fairly well concealed. You will need a small game hunting license. Because doves are a migratory bird, you will need to be HIP certified and have a plug in your shotgun. If you are on state land, like Thunder Marsh or Woodboro Wildlife Areas, you will need non-toxic shot.
A retrieving dog is a good idea; in fact, the dove hunters I have spoken with have said it is a great way to get your dog trained up on retrieving. If you want to learn more about dove hunting, you can check out the DNR website, or stop in at the DNR service center for a “Mourning Dove Hunting in Wisconsin” brochure and a regulations pamphlet.
I don’t hunt doves myself. I have considered it, especially since I have heard it is extremely fun, great for getting youth into hunting, and the meat is delicious. From a professional perspective, I feel that harvest of doves makes good use of a renewable resource, and with careful monitoring, the population will continue to thrive while providing hunting opportunities. Right now, an estimated six percent or less of Wisconsin’s fall dove population is harvested annually. Wisconsin dove numbers have continued to rise steadily by one percent annually over the last 40 years. We are taking great care of our doves.
I have some animals that I would choose not to hunt or eat because of the role they play in my life. The mourning dove is one of them. Maybe it’s because my wife has said she isn’t sure she would eat dove meat. Maybe it’s because they feed at my bird feeder and raise their young in my back yard. Maybe it’s because deep down, I am still that little boy with a BB gun looking into my father’s eyes for approval. Or, maybe it’s a little of all those things. But for right now, I don’t hunt doves.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR in Rhinelander, and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.