Dove Fields, Abundant Yields
Article by NATE SKINNER
Dove hunting has long been a tradition that Texans look forward to every September because it kicks off fall hunting seasons and brings friends and family together.
From miles around, thousands of hunters will flock to rural communities across the Lone Star State to gather in fields laden with White-wings and Mourning Doves. The birds are what the hunters are after, but the camaraderie, antics and memories keep them coming back for more.
A prime example is the South Texas town of Dilley. Every year Dilley Feed and Grain hosts a Dove Festival for dove hunters who are drawn to the massive agricultural fields surrounding the community. The Dove Fest includes a delicious lunch and always takes place on Saturday of the south zone’s opening weekend. This year’s event is set for September 15.
Last year, I had the privilege of attending Dilley Feed and Grain’s Dove Fest after an outstanding morning hunt with Blaise Korzekwa, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Wildlife Biologist for Dimmit, Frio and Zavala counties. We hunted for Mourning Doves in a milo field that was farmed and managed by a local outfitter called Dilley Dove. Korzekwa works with the outfit on creating and maintaining an excellent source of food and habitat for doves. Dilley Dove owns, farms and operates 10,000 acres in Frio and LaSalle counties, and it is instrumental in helping the folks at Dilley Feed and Grain orchestrate their Dove Fest every September.
Hunters of all ages gathered to eat and socialize with their families and friends. Several game wardens attended as well. It was amazing to see such a large and diverse crowd gathered on this small-town rural Texas property— all because of the doves.
Dilley represents just one of many small towns across Texas where this scenario plays out as dove season commences this month proving migratory game birds play a vital role in our state’s hunting traditions.
Doves Across Texas
According to TPWD Webless Migratory Game Bird Program Leader Owen Fitzsimmons, the outlook on dove populations across the many eco-regions of Texas is positive.
“We had decent rainfall in many parts of the state early this year,” Fitzsimmons said. “This promoted the growth of dove-dependent native herbaceous plants and grasses and resulted in a generous amount of native food production.”
Fitzsimmons said that the Mourning Dove population in Texas is fairly consistent at around 30 million to 35 million birds, with a slightly increasing long-term trend.
“Based on our annual surveys, the Trans-Pecos, South Texas, Blackland Prairie and Rolling Plains eco-regions are seeing the largest increases in Mourning Dove breeding abundance,” he said. “It’s hard to say what exactly is driving production up in these areas, but it likely has to do with changing land use and local weather patterns.”
Fitzsimmons said White-winged Dove are rapidly expanding their geographical range and their population in Texas has grown about 10-fold over the past 20 years.
“Around 80 percent of our 10 million White-wings reside in and around urban areas, and the population is expanding northward from their traditional Rio Grande Valley range,” Fitzsimmons said. “They can now be found across the entire state and all the way up into the lower Midwest and mid-Rockies. I expect our White-winged Dove population to continue to grow alongside urban expansion over the next several decades.”
Fitzsimmons said that one pressing question is exactly how Hurricane Harvey may have affected coastal dove populations.
“We know habitat was destroyed in some areas, but don’t know how or to what degree that may have affected doves,” he said. “Did Harvey push birds away from coastal areas and, if so, have they returned? How many were actually killed by the hurricane? Are there any lingering effects to the habitat from all the flooding? Some of these questions are impossible to answer, but our ongoing survey efforts should help paint a clearer picture on any changes in dove populations.”
As far as habitat for doves is concerned, Fitzsimmons said that the birds need three specific things in order to thrive: food, cover and water.
“Those three necessities are especially important during the breeding season when energy requirements are at their peak,” Fitzsimmons said. “Generally, native forbs and grass seeds make up the bulk of dove diets. They prefer to feed on bare ground and in open areas. They also prefer to nest and roost in dense shrubs or trees; however, doves have been known to nest just about anywhere they can pile some grass and sticks together.”
Although doves readily feed on commercial grain crops and in agricultural fields, Fitzsimmons indicated that it is critical for them to be able to find more nutritious, native food sources during their nesting season when energy demands are higher.
“Commercial grains can provide a lot of energy, but native forage provides critical amounts of protein and other nutrients doves need for egg-production and brood-rearing,” he said.
As far as breeding goes, Fitzsimmons said Mourning Doves breed throughout the United States and are well-adapted to succeed in a wide variety of habitats and conditions.
“They are so well adapted that it is hard to accurately describe what premium Mourning Dove nesting habitat is,” he added. “Throughout the country you can find them nesting down on the ground or up in the highest pine tree.”
According to Fitzsimmons, premium habitat in Texas consists of areas with trees or brush for cover as well as openings and fields for feeding and have a water source within a mile or so.
“Mourning Doves will fly fairly long distances for food and water but are reproductively more successful when everything they need is in closer proximity, which makes sense from an energy standpoint,” Fitzsimmons said.
When it comes to White-winged Dove breeding success, the key lies within urban and suburban areas.
“White-wings in particular have really adapted to urban and suburban regions over the years,” Fitzsimmons said. “They seem to prefer neighborhoods with large, mature oaks, pecans and ash trees. We don’t really know what may negatively affect urban nesting White-wings, but it is likely that increased predation from feral cats and birds like grackles and blue jays, along with lower-quality food from backyard bird feeders, are some of the bigger issues in urban settings.”
Unlike Mourning Doves, White-wings display a more colonial behavior, Fitzsimmons said.
"They tend to nest in groups,” he said. “While colonial nesting has its advantages, it also means that a strong storm or other event can wipe out a lot of nests at once.”
Both dove species are well adapted for nesting multiple times within a breeding season. According to Fitzsimmons, the nesting cycle only takes about a month and occurs in the following stages: courtship, mating and nest-building.
“These three stages usually take about three to seven days,” he said. “Then an approximately two-week incubation period follows and another two weeks are used to raise the young.”
While fledged young rely on their parents for food for several days after nesting is complete, adult doves will often start another nesting cycle while still continuing to care for their juveniles, Fitzimmons said.
“Their rapid and prolific breeding strategy means doves are well-adapted to deal with the loss of a nest,” Fitzsimmons said. “Since they have multiple clutches per year, doves can quickly recover from the occasional poor breeding season.”
There are a number of management actions that landowners can implement to attract doves. Shallow disking is one strategy suggested by Fitzsimmons.
“Disking a field two to four inches during the fall and winter will help promote growth for the native annual and perennial plants that dove depend on during the spring and summer,” he said. “The same goes for a prescribed fire. A cool season fire will help clear the ground and promote grass production.”
Food plots of sunflower, millet and sorghum will attract doves as well. Fitzsimmons suggested leaving some gaps of bare ground in and around the plot, since doves prefer to feed in open, bare areas.
For farmers managing agricultural fields and growing grain crops, Fitzsimmons suggested leaving the edges of a field unharvested and planting trees along them for roosting and nesting. If there is a water source nearby, he said to be sure that its banks are devoid of tall grasses or thick brush so that dove are able to land near the edge and walk up to the water.
The amount and distribution of native food sources varies quite a bit throughout the state. Even if conditions are poor for producing these food sources, landowners can help by managing their properties for doves.
“Texas is 95 percent privately owned,” Fitzsimmons said. “Landowners hold the key to improving dove habitat. I highly recommend that interested landowners contact their local TPWD biologist. He or she will be able to recommend site-specific actions and can help develop a management plan that will maximize the wildlife value of the land, providing not only better dove habitat, but better habitat and hunting opportunities for a variety of other wildlife species.”
Fitzsimmons and others within TPWD are currently working on a dove management guide for landowners that will provide effective management actions and techniques specific to the different eco-regions of Texas.
“Habitat management is a lot different in Amarillo than it is Brownsville, and this document will highlight the different regional approaches for dove,” Fitzsimmons said. “The management recommendations will be coming directly from our biologists out in the field so it will include advice from local experts.”
Dove Seasons Explained
One of the primary objectives for TPWD is maximizing hunting opportunity. Although the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) ultimately sets regulations for migratory game birds, TPWD has some limited flexibility in choosing season dates. These dates are typically staggered from north to south through the three dove zones so that hunters can take advantage of the timing within these birds’ migration patterns. Hunters now have a 90-day dove season, so there is a lot of hunting opportunity across the state.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is that there are federal frameworks that dictate the window within which season dates can be set,” Fitzsimmons said. “For the North and Central Dove Zones, September 1 is the earliest possible opening date. The South Zone has been restricted to opening two to three weeks later.”
According to Fitzsimmons, TPWD has worked with the USFWS over the past several years to allow Texas to implement Special White-Winged Dove days so that South Zone hunters could take advantage of the first couple of weekends in September just like hunters in the rest of the state.
“Starting this year, we can now open the South Zone on September 14,” said Fitzsimmons. “That’s the earliest opening date in nearly 50 years. With the Special White-winged Dove days falling on September 1, 2, 8 and 9, and a regular dove season opening date of September 14, South Zone hunters will now be able to hunt every weekend in September this year. This is big win for our hunters since the vast majority of the dove harvests in Texas occur throughout the month of September.”
Since doves are regulated by the USFWS, TPWD collects several types of information to help maintain a national dove management strategy. TPWD also uses this information to develop management strategies in Texas.
TPWD conducts two different types of dove surveys. One is focused more on urban areas and White-winged Dove and the other generally targets Mourning Dove and is conducted in more rural areas. These surveys also provide some insight into changes in regional concentrations in Texas and gather some estimates of other non-game and exotic dove species like Eurasian Collared-Dove.
TPWD also participates in a national dove banding program used to gather data on harvest mortality, age and sex demographics. For this reason, Fitzsimmons said it is crucial that hunters report bands from any banded birds that they harvest.
“That information is critical to determining harvest rates and other population metrics,” he said.
TPWD also participates in a national parts collection survey. Fitzsimmons said this is conducted by hunters across the country submitting wings from doves that they harvest.
“The wings are analyzed to help determine annual recruitment and demographics,” he said.
It’s finally September and dove season is here. Let’s keep the tradition alive, and cherish the moments spent in the field with friends, family and, of course, the birds. Here’s to a memorable and safe hunting season.
TWA Partners with Texas Dove Hunters Association
According to TWA’s Texas Youth Hunting Program (TYHP) Field Operations Coordinator Bryan Jones, TYHP and the Texas Dove Hunter’s Association (TDHA), have been working together for several years on a variety of different events around the state.
“We met with TDHA founder and Executive Director Bobby Thornton several years ago to start a partnership to expand the dove hunting opportunities across Texas,” Jones said. “To date, we have run two youth hunts with TDHA on TDHA supplied properties, and we have also participated in their annual Veterans Dove Hunt.”
In addition, TDHA runs Dove 101 training sessions instructed by TYHP.
“This fall we plan to once again partner with TDHA on South Texas hunts,” he said. “We will also assist with a planned TDHA and Texas Brigades Dove 101 event in North Texas that will include a dove hunt for kids ranging from ages 9-17.” The North Texas Dove 101 event will be held near Graham on September 8.
“Attendees will be engulfed in a true, Texas Brigades-style learning environment,” Texas Brigades Executive Director Natalie Wolff said. “Participants will rotate through curriculum stations focusing on all things dove-related. This experience will include hands-on anatomy demonstrations and demonstrations of field dressing techniques.”
She continued, “It will also include firearm and field safety lessons and tips, bird identification methods, hunting ethics, dove habitat and management, and more. The day will end with an evening dove hunt and a cookout. Participants must bring their hunting license and proof of hunter safety certification.”
Register for the Dove 101 event on September 8 on the Texas Brigades website: www.texasbrigades.org/experience.