The mourning dove is one of the most abundant bird species in North America and dove populations have been fairly stable for a number of years. Population estimates are derived from leg-banding studies and breeding bird surveys conducted in Virginia and throughout the country. Data from recent years indicate there are around 300 million doves in the United States and around 7 million in Virginia. Mourning dove hunting is very popular and is offered in 40 U.S. States and several Canadian provinces. In the United States there are an estimated 900,000 dove hunters that take an annual harvest of around 15 million doves. Recent surveys in Virginia indicate there are around 17,000 dove hunters in the state and the average harvest is around 250,000 doves annually.
In 2017, the late winter and early spring weather was warm and mild. The spring also started out fairly wet with many areas getting above average rainfall. These conditions sometimes lead to a reduction in dove nesting success. Doves build fairly shallow nests that can get damaged by wet and windy conditions. In addition, the nestlings are susceptible to this cool and wet weather, and their survival is often lower in these conditions. So, some of the early dove nesting was likely hampered by these conditions. However, in July the weather turned hot with little rain in many areas. Later nesting attempts appear to be doing well and production appears to be better during the latter portion of the summer. The summer trapping and leg-banding efforts being conducted by the department have captured fewer young doves so far this year, so early production does appears to be a little below normal this year, however, late nesting efforts may make up for these early shortfalls.
Dove hunter success often depends not only on the dove population and nesting success, but also on the condition of the habitat and the amount of food available. Conditions varied around the state, but in general the mild weather in late winter and early spring allowed many farmers to get their corn crop in 1-2 weeks earlier than normal this year. In some areas, planting dates (both corn and sunflower) were delayed by the wet weather. With the wet spring, the corn crop got a fairly good start, as did many of the native dove foods. However, the dry conditions in late June and July will likely lead to an earlier corn harvest and possible a lower yield in some areas. Some farmers in the eastern part of the state will likely cut their corn earlier than normal, and some fields that have been harder hit by the dry weather may just get bush-hogged rather than harvested.
An early harvest will open up a lot of feeding grounds for doves in early to mid-September. However, this may also spread the birds out across the available habitat, and make concentrations of birds harder to find. Some pre-season scouting may be necessary to help locate areas that doves are using. Look for fresh cut agricultural fields or areas with lots of native plant foods.
Enjoy your hunting and be safe. Also, remember to get your HIP permit well before going hunting so you don’t get rushed trying to do everything at the last minute. Good luck!
This article was written by Gary Costanzo, Migratory Game Bird Scientist, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.