For 58 years, Minnesota barred hunters from shooting mourning doves for target practice. The reason behind that longstanding policy was sound: Shooting doves is wasteful, unsporting and inhumane. ¶ But reason flew the coop in 2004 when state legislators authorized dove hunting for the first time in decades -- with the Senate approving it by a single vote. Now, many legislators rightly recognize that there is no adequate justification for shooting a harmless bird so small that its body yields but an ounce or two of meat. Sen. Sandra Pappas, Sen. Scott Dibble and Rep. Mike Jaros have introduced legislation to restore Minnesota's dove-shooting ban. ¶ Typically, if someone wants to take the life of an animal, he or she tries to argue that the creature is a pest: The deer overpopulate, the raccoons spread rabies, the gophers dig up crops and so on. The killing is made to seem less selfish and more socially beneficial if the critters have cost us some dough or made life a little more dangerous or inconvenient. ¶ But it's hard to turn the gentle dove into a marauder. Its call is not a bloodcurdling screech but a soft coo. Doves don't overpopulate; they regulate their own numbers without help from us, and have done so in Minnesota for decades. They don't destroy crops; they are ground-feeding birds that help farmers by eating weed seeds. They don't eat ornamental shrubs.

They don't carry avian influenza, monkey pox, chronic wasting disease or any other infectious scourge. They don't tip over trash cans, although they have been known to perch on them from time to time. They don't foul golf courses with their droppings, as some other birds do, thereby keeping the powerful "putt lobby" out of this fracas.

It wasn't doves that attacked Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock's film "The Birds." Doves are not well-known in the movies or on television, except for their end-of-episode flights on television's former hit "Touched by an Angel." They are commonly recognized as the bird of peace, however, in that perennial best-seller known as the Bible, in which we are advised to be as "wise as serpents and harmless as doves."

It's not as if hunters can't take aim at a wide range of other birds. There are many sizes and species of geese and all the dabbling and diving ducks. There are the upland birds such as pheasant, partridge and grouse. Then there are turkeys and a flock of others from coots and other rails to snipe and woodcock. It's enough diversity to keep any bird hunter busy.

While there are no particularly good reasons to hunt doves, there are plenty of reasons not to hunt them. Data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reveal a wounding rate in excess of 20 percent, which means that one in every four or five birds shot is not retrieved.

Dove shooting also results in the discharge of mounds of lead shot, which pollutes the environment and poisons other wildlife. In fact, the lead shot that hunters discharge on a day of gunning far outweighs the mass of the birds they kill.

What's more, the September hunting season is a prescription for orphaning young birds not yet weaned from their parents. And there's not much sport in shooting birds that tens of thousands of Minnesotans feed and watch and accustom to a human presence.

It's no wonder that dove hunting has not been popular with Minnesota sportsmen. The Department of Natural Resources told lawmakers during the legislative debate four years ago that 30,000 hunters would participate in a dove season initially and 50,000 annually over time. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 597,000 people hunt in Minnesota, but only about 1 percent of them -- 6,000 -- hunted doves during the 2005-06 season.

You don't need to look at the numbers. All you really have to do is look out your window. There, you may see a dove outside your home and hear its gentle call. A bird simply living its life, walking around or flying about to gather seeds and other foods to survive.

To paraphrase Plutarch: Though the boys throw stones in sport, the doves do not die in sport, but in earnest. It's a lesson to pass on to child and adult alike.

Michael Markarian is executive vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, online at www.humanesociety.org. He also writes the blog "Animals & Politics" at animalsandpolitics.org.