Near Little Falls, Minn. – When Minnesota’s 2016 mourning dove hunting season opens at a half-hour before sunrise on Thursday, hunting could be good.
Or not so good.
Last week, a scouting venture to a few of my favorite spots in central Minnesota provided mixed results. I saw numerous doves perched on power lines, as they are inclined to do, but no real concentration of birds. It was early in the dove migration, though, so I didn’t really expect to find the mother lode.
However, mourning doves are early migrators. Doves are already arriving in states as far south as Tennessee. I’ve always found it odd how early some doves head south because they are a relatively hardy bird. A few even overwinter in Minnesota.
The good news I found on my scouting trip was I discovered weed seeds, food favored by doves as forage, had begun to mature and some were even falling on the ground. That’s important because mourning doves are ground feeders, preferring almost exclusively to dine on seeds that have ripened and dropped.
In the areas my partners and I hunt, doves prefer to nourish themselves on the seeds of two weed species: foxtail and Johnson grass. It is likely the weed seeds matured early because of the mild spring and sufficient summer precipitation. Some years a late spring and cool summer have delayed the ripening of most of the weeds and doves had to find food in nontraditional locations, making hunting more difficult.
But the ample summer rains are actually part of the bad news. My partners and I do much of our hunting near mourning dove watering areas. Well, here in central Minnesota we’ve had far more than “sufficient” rain. Most low areas in fields contained water. And as the sun neared the western horizon, I watched through binoculars as doves flew to those waterholes. So, what’s the problem? Way too many drinking options for them.
Another downside to the heavy summer rainfall is that many of the low, bare areas in corn, soybean and potato fields that normally flood and dry, allowing weeds to grow, are now so thick and tall because of the moisture that doves will forgo those normally prime feeding areas because, like I mentioned above, the ground-feeding birds prefer to dine in locations with a view.
During my scouting mission I observed very few fields of harvested small grain, and that also doesn’t bode well for dove hunters because the birds have a liking for waste grain, especially wheat. The landscape was mostly corn and soybeans.
Mourning dove hunting is relatively new in Minnesota. The Legislature OK’d dove hunting in 2004 after a 57-year absence. At the time the DNR hoped 30,000-plus hunters would pursue doves in the state, but that has not been the case. Minnesota dove-hunter numbers have stabilized at about 10,000 in recent years.
Nationwide the mourning dove hunting story is different. In 2015 the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimated the dove population at 247 million. Roughly, 850,000 hunters harvest about 13 million birds annually.
So, how does one go about hunting mourning doves?
Minnesotans in pursuit of doves are likely to find more birds in the western and southern parts of the state. Hunters should first spend at least one morning and evening scouting. Watch for birds flying to water, feeding areas or roosts.
As mentioned, doves prefer to feed in the open in short cover, so check harvested small grain fields like millet, oats and wheat. Also overgrown or weedy fields that contain scattered openings are particularly attractive to feeding doves.
When actually hunting, it’s a good idea to examine the crops of the first birds you bag. That will tell you for sure what the doves are feeding on, and thus where you might find them.
Mourning doves can be fickle — here today, gone tomorrow. What will happen between now and when the season opens on Thursday remains to be seen.
Regardless, my friends and I will be out before dawn on the dove opener for a hunt that has become tradition for us since 2004.
The daily limit on mourning doves is 15, with 30 in possession. Shooting hours are from a half-hour before sunrise to sunset.