The mourning dove is an unassuming bird that pretty much goes about its business unnoticed by the average person. Natural camouflage and an unpretentious lifestyle serve to keep it out of the spotlight.

Backyard birdwatchers know the dove, of course, because it is a regular visitor to feeders and a common nester in landscape trees, particularly evergreens. And at this time each year, hunters also focus their attention on doves, because the annual Sept. 1 season opener traditionally kicks off Pennsylvania’s fall hunting seasons.

Pennsylvania hunters are fortunate, because not every state allows dove hunting. The vast majority do, certainly, but it is hard to get a handle on just how many states have dove seasons. Reports vary from 38 to 40, perhaps because open seasons in some states swing back and forth from one year to another.

Take Michigan, for instance. After a long and contentious battle between hunters and anti-hunters, the Michigan Legislature passed Public Act No. 160 in 2004 to make the mourning dove a game bird and authorize a season. But by June of 2005, the momentum had swung back toward the anti-hunting side, which had obtained enough signatures on petitions to challenge Act No. 160. As a result, Michigan mourning dove hunting slipped into limbo until voters can decide during this fall’s general election.

Ohio, too, is a fairly recent entry into the fraternity of dove-hunting states and the matter there remains a contentious one. Meanwhile, in most states north of here, doves remain protected as songbirds.

Pennsylvania has had a mourning dove season since 1945. There are those who appreciate the bird for its sporting qualities – it is, after all, wicked fast and as maneuverable as anything on wings. But most hunters in this part of the country only try dove hunting briefly, then give it up in favor or more traditional pursuits.

The pastime is much more popular in the wide-open farm country of southeast Pennsylvania, just as it is a positive passion throughout the southeastern part of the country. Indeed, the mourning dove is said to be the most-hunted game bird in the United States. Nationwide, it is estimated that hunters take between 22 million and 25 million doves a year and pump $5 million into the economy in the process.

One of the allegations made during campaigns against dove hunting is that it decreases the population of a bird that people enjoy watching. But, that does not seem to be the case. Mourning doves are remarkably prolific, and although there have been noticeable and unexplained declines in their numbers across the western edge of their range, they remain numerous enough that the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology ranks them among the 10 most abundant birds in the United States.

Part of that is because of their prodigious reproductive rate. Doves lay just two eggs per nest, but may nest as often as 10 times a summer. Hunted or not, 70 to 80 percent of any year’s young will not live through winter. The survival rate is a little better for adults, but the Pennsylvania Game Commission puts the mortality rate of even a stable population at 60 percent.

Pennsylvania is one of several states trying to learn more about mourning doves by banding birds. Hunters who shoot a dove with a band have been asked to use a toll-free number (1-800-327-2263) or e-mail (band-reports@patuxent.usgs.gov) to report it. Be prepared to give information on where and when the bird was taken, as well as the band number.



Joe Gorden is the outdoors writer for The Tribune-Democrat.

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