In the hunting world, it’s a fast growing sport. Dove season opened September 1 in North Carolina, West Virginia, Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, and Georgia. Federal authorities regulate the sport, because mourning doves are considered to be migratory birds just like ducks and geese. Therefore, the season dates, bag limits and specific regulations are set each year by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The mourning dove is one of the most populous birds in the United States: fall populations nationwide have ranged from 350 to 600 million doves.
Three historical trends in Appalachia have enabled the dove to expand its numbers to regional abundance. At the beginning of the 20th century timber companies inadvertently enhanced the dove population by clearing large areas of deciduous forests. These birds need some hardwoods to roost and nest in, but gravitate to overgrown prairie lands dotted by small clusters of trees.
Secondly, expanding grainfields and farmsteads have created an excellent combination of food (waste grains) and nesting cover for mourning doves. Finally, intensive grazing throughout the region has encouraged exotic plant species that often produce more seeds than native grasses. The food requirements for doves are generally quite varied, but include virtually any type of grain or seed, whether of the cultivated variety or from a wild source.
First thing you need to hunt doves is a shotgun and bird shot. A 12-gauge is better than a 20-gauge, because the larger gun reaches out further and presents a wider and denser pattern. Wildly corkscrewing doves can make complete fools of the wingshooter who prides himself on shot placement! A field where doves are coming in for water or feed provides the hunting opportunity. They gather around small open bodies of water to drink and browse for bits of the gravel that they must ingest in order to digest grains and seeds. The only other requirement is enough shooters to keep the birds moving.
During the early season in September, the usual concern for hunters is the heat. However, thunderstorms can wreak havoc on dove shoots, as can torrential rains and lightning. Windy days do not seem to deter doves. This early in the season, most of the birds taken in the region are homegrown adults and juveniles. Doves are great breeders, getting an early start in April. Many will nest again during the summer.
It’s quite common in the South to use standard farming practices for the express purpose of planting fields for dove shoots. This can be the expensive part of the sport, as a field of sunflowers can be costly to plant. Cornfields work well, too, if the corn harvest happens to commence just before the dove season opens. Residual grain left over from the harvesting process is a great dove attractor – and perfectly legal. Mowing weedfields is also a quick way to create a dove field.
Some landowners plant several fields at different dates to stagger their maturity, thus providing a food source to last over a longer span of time. After the initial season is over, some forage – like sunflower fields – may be virtually barren as the doves pick them clean. Shooters have to switch to other crops harvested later in the year, like soybeans or corn.
Dove hunters looking for public lands also find that many wildlife management areas have planted fields for dove hunts.