CENTRAL MINNESOTA – A half-hour before sunrise Tuesday, the 2015 Minnesota mourning dove hunting season will open.
As a game bird, a mourning dove does not possess the wariness of, say, a Canada goose. Nor does it thrive in impenetrable cover like a ruffed grouse or woodcock.
That doesn't mean that bagging a limit of the small brown birds with thumb-sized heads is a hunter's version of fish in a barrel. Scouting for a prime hunting location before the Sept. 1 opener is by far the most important aspect to ensuring a productive first-day hunt.
But there are no guarantees.
Last August, about a week before the mourning dove hunting opener, a friend and I found a harvested wheat field that had lured many doves. The land also had other dove-attracting qualities: a pond, dead trees and an evergreen plantation. The landowner was a nice guy, and he gave us permission to hunt his acreage. However, on opening morning, not only did we not bag a single dove, we did not even see one. How can a hunter spend two hours afield without even seeing a dove?
Mourning doves, just like other game birds, have three basic requirements: food, water and shelter. Find any one of these dove necessities, or better yet all three, and you are likely to find doves. Early morning or late afternoon is the best time to scout because that is when doves are most active.
Last week, on a sunny August midafternoon, a friend and I toured some of my proven dove hunting spots. The information we gathered was both good and bad.
The good news was the weeds and grain crops such as wheat and oats were ahead of schedule compared with the past two years. Most small-grain fields had been harvested and, even though it was midday, we saw a fair amount of doves. Weed seeds such as Johnson grass and foxtail were close to maturity, and hopefully by the Tuesday opener will have ripened and fallen to the ground. The bad news was that the area had received copious amounts of rain during the past few days, and flocks of mourning doves were scattered because puddles of water were everywhere.
Mourning doves thrive on small grain, so finding a recently harvested field of oats, wheat or sunflowers is a good place to start looking for the birds.
Doves also eat a variety of weed seeds. A farmer's dictionary would tell you a "dirty field" is one with weeds sprouting between neat rows of crops. To a mourning dove, a "dirty field" is a good thing. A weedy field can provide a hungry dove a smorgasbord of delectable weed seeds such as foxtail, Johnson grass, pigweed and others. Keep an eye out for low areas in crop fields that were flooded during early summer rains since those spots are now often overrun with weeds, much to the delight of doves.
Mourning doves require water at least once per day, usually just before going to roost in the evening. The birds prefer to drink from a pond with an open view and often get their water along shorelines free of tall vegetation such as cattails.
Cattle watering ponds are great spots to look for doves because livestock will have stomped down or otherwise eliminated the vegetation along the shore.
Mourning doves prefer to spend the night tucked in thick groves of trees, usually close to food and water. Pine plantations are often used as nighttime roosts, but any stand of trees providing the birds with a spot well-protected from the wind might serve as a roosting location.
During daytime, doves often pass the time perched in dead trees or on electrical wires, especially if the wind is calm. These loafing sites are usually close to available food and water.
Hunters should plan on pursuing doves on the Sept. 1 opener or as soon thereafter as possible because the birds are quick to leave ahead of unseasonably cold weather.
The daily bag limit on mourning doves is 15, with 45 in possession.
Bill Marchel is an outdoors photographer and writer living near Brainerd.