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Whistling wings

By Steve Vantreese

Monday brings a many hundred-thousand-gun salute to America's most popular game bird.

This Labor Day is also dove day, the traditional opening of the mourning dove hunting season across Kentucky and other states. Dove day may be unofficial and no holiday in itself, but the dove season opener is a red letter date for countless upland hunters.

It's a longer season this year. Split into three helpings, this season will be Sept. 1-Oct. 26, Nov. 27-Dec. 7 and Dec. 20-Jan. 11. Those dates reflect an increase of 20 hunting days â “ two each added to the earlier segments and 16 expanding the late, wintry stretch. That's because federal managers determined that added opportunities would have no significant effect on the dove population in Eastern Management Unit states that include Kentucky.

Other regulations for this oncoming season are unchanged from previous seasons. That includes a daily bag limit of 15 doves and a possession limit of 30 after two or more days of hunting.

Shooting hours also are static. For private land hunting, those are 11 a.m. to sunset on opening day, then 30 minutes before sunrise to sunset the rest of the season. On state wildlife management areas and state-leased fields, the 11 a.m. shooting portal runs the entire first season segment, while the legal daylight-until-sunset hours are the rule for the second and third hunting stretches.

The outlook for this year is not really any different than it has been in recent history. If you base that on dove availability, it's looking good. Anecdotally, it seems like there are oodles of doves around.

The fact that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offered 20 more days of dove hunting to Eastern Management Unit states should be a clue that mourning doves are not enduring hard times.

The latest round-figure assessments from the feds about the dove population, the extent of dove hunting and the dove harvest by hunters assure us that shotgunners aren't depleting the species. Historically, unregulated shooters may have had a role in vanquishing the passenger pigeon â “ but nothing remotely similar is happening with doves, so relax.

Figures from the latest year in which such research conclusions are available, 2012, show that the United States' population of mourning doves is, oh, maybe 349 million birds. And from that, hunters killed about 14.5 million.

There are about 830,000 doves hunters scattered across the U.S., and these folks spent about 2.5 million hunter days afield to harvest those 14.5 million doves. That figures out, by the way, to something less than six doves per each hunter day spent in the field.

While it's obvious that everybody isn't taking a limit when hunting, that average take of doves per day of hunting isn't too shabby. It shows that people are encountering some activity in the field, and they're getting tolerable results.

Those results speak to the dove's deserved title as the most hunted and most harvested game bird. Its availability and accessibility to grassroots hunters are major it its popularity. Indeed, you don't have to be rich (or know someone who is) and you don't have to travel long distances to find some place with reasonable expectations of hunting and taking some doves.

That's not to say that there aren't some upscale dove hunts out there. Some prosperous landowners host some relative black-tie dove shoots at fields where little expense is spared to produce the best odds of attracting birds for an upper crust of shotgunning participants.

Alas, there aren't enough of these fields around to accommodate the general hunting public, and most of us don't land invitations for these who's-who shoots. Fortunately, doves aren't too snooty and care more about just finding something to eat than flying around socially or economically prominent humans.

While it's not nearly so exclusive, blue collar dove hunters can find free, no-invitation-required hunting on public lands. Check around at state-owned wildlife management areas for public fields prepared specifically for dove hunting. Nearby, the likes of West Kentucky WMA, Ballard WMA and the federal Clark's River National Wildlife Refuge have offerings. See the 2014 Kentucky Hunting Guide for Dove, Wood Duck, Teal, Woodcock, Snipe and Crow for details.

But plenty of private land that's not prepared as dove fields could offer hunting with permission from owners. You won't find sunflowers mowed in strips, but recently mowed weedy fields, barren flats with scattered natural seeds, or the banks of an isolated pond where doves come to water might be hot spots for a couple of hunters.

Where an early corn crop is combined could be about as good as a formal dove field. The same goes for a location where silage is cut.

You need not have a specific feeding field to get near doves. Some place along doves' daily flight lines could offer good hunting even though birds have no plans to stop there. A gap in a tree line through which local low-flying doves funnel could be as productive as a doctor and lawyer shoot for a freelance hunter or two.

Yes, lots of doves are out there, and they don't require any more credentials than a hunting license and migratory bird/waterfowl permit to hunt them. They call for no degree nor social status.

But you must be able to shoot a little bit to bring any home. And that's another can of worms.

 

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at outdoors@paducahsun.com.

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