Elusive White-wings Timing Is Everything

Elusive White-wings Timing Is Everything

Article by Nate Skinner

The sun beat down while the light breeze provided little relief from the heat. We found at the edge of a tree line marking the perimeter of the sunflower field before us. Through a sendero between the stalks, a border patrol vehicle with heat waves radiating from its hood could clearly be seen on the opposite end of the pasture. With the Rio Grande River at our backs, it seemed we were about as south as we could get in South Texas.

Wiping the sweat from my brow, I saw the first dove entering the field. They trickled in one at a time. A few pairs followed here and there. Gradually, the flights became denser until there were birds in every direction. 

The White-wings bombed the sunflowers, piling in to take advantage of an easy afternoon snack. The show was incredible, and the effects from the miserable heat were quickly forgotten. Barrels blazed orange.. It was difficult to keep a shotgun loaded. This was the type of hunt that South Texas was known for.

It felt almost magical to hit the timing just right. At the signs of the first fall cool front, these birds would surely be gone and riding a north wind further south. But for now, the stars had aligned. We were absolutely covered up with White-winged Doves.

White-winged Doves range from the southernmost United States and Mexico to Central America and much of the West Indies. In the United States, White-wings historically have only been distributed in the southern regions of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. 

The scene described above has long been the norm for dove hunters in South Texas, particularly in areas of the Lower Rio Grande Valley that fall within the historical Special White-winged Dove Area that was demarcated by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD). Prior to the1980s, this area held the greatest abundance and density of White-winged Doves in the entire nation.

In recent decades, the species has expanded its range northward and can now be found breeding throughout much of the southern United States. This includes areas as far north as Oklahoma. 

A rapid growth in human population within the southern part of the country at the end of the 20th century brought increased agriculture and ornamental trees to the region. This provided additional feeding and nesting habitat for White-winged Doves and is considered a contributing factor for the species’ expansion.

According to the TPWD Dove Program Leader Shaun Oldenburger, White-winged Dove populations have flourished across the Lone Star State in recent years.

“We have seen both a geographical expansion and population increase in White-winged Doves over the past 10 years,” he explained. “Other than the Piney Woods, we are seeing White-wings become prevalent in all other regions of Texas.”

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Results from the TPWD 2015 Dove Progress Report, which listed population status and harvest data, showed the estimated breeding population for White-winged Doves was 9.76 million birds. This was nearly a 48 percent increase from 2014 and a more than 48 percent increase from the long-term breeding population average recorded from 2008 to 2014. Of this population, a little more than 80 percent occupied urban habitats as compared to the nearly 20 percent that lived in rural areas.

Oldenburger said these statistics are due somewhat to population increases within certain urban areas of the state, as well as increases and expansions in habitat. 

“White-wings live in cities,” he said. “They like nesting, roosting and loafing in mature trees within neighborhoods. Plus there is research showing that supplemental fossil fuel heat sources, absorption and radiation of solar energy from asphalt and concrete, and backyard bird feeding efforts attract large concentrations of White-winged Doves. All of these things take place in urban areas.”

These factors are a large reason why there have been more White-winged Doves in central and upper South Texas than in their historical range of the Lower Rio Grande Valley since 1990. According to Oldenburger, one of the largest populations of White-wings lives within the city limits of San Antonio. 

Some of the best hunting for White-winged Doves still exists within the Lower Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. However, additional areas have become extremely well known for their massive flocks of White-wings. Since the majority of the state’s White-winged Dove population inhabits urban areas, rural locations just outside of towns present excellent areas for hunters to find plenty of action. Agricultural fields around Hondo, El Campo and the San Antonio area usually see hordes of White-wings every September.

Timing and weather conditions play a huge role in how successful hunts for White-winged Doves will be because weather directly affects their migration. 

“White-wings are no doubt an early season bird in terms of their movement,” he said. “And this year I expect there to be some early pre-staging congregations of birds during the first days and weeks of September due to some earlier than normal nesting. Changes in weather, such as cold fronts and rain events, also have a significant effect on their migration. These conditions push concentrations of White-winged Doves southward. We see large densities wintering in Mexico and Central America each year. TPWD is currently studying returns on banded birds to better understand their migration patterns.”

The geographical expansion and population increase of White-winged Doves in Texas, combined with the fact that the migration of the species can be weather sensitive, is the reason that TPWD has altered the hunting regulations for this season. The Special White-winged Dove Area will now include the entire South Zone.

“Basically what this means is that hunters will be able to hunt White-wings within the portion of the state that is east of Interstate Highway 37 all the way to the Louisiana border and south of Interstate Highway 10 during the Special White-winged Dove season dates,” said Oldenburger. “This is in addition to the area of the state traditionally known as the Special White-winged Dove Area.”

Regulations as determined by TPWD for the Special White-winged Dove Season will apply in all of these areas. At the time of this writing, the tentative dates released by TPWD for the special season are September 2, 3, 9 and 10. 

Oldenburger said that the change in regulations regarding the portion of the state that can be hunted for the special season was an easy decision for TPWD officials. 

“Expanding the Special White-winged Dove Area to include the entire South Zone was a no-brainer,” he said. “White-wing populations are higher than they've ever been, and these birds are now found almost everywhere. We want hunters to be able to take advantage of resources while large concentrations of the birds are still available. By the time the middle of September rolls around, significant numbers of White-winged Doves may have already migrated southward, depending on the weather.”

Other additional factors that motivated the change in hunting regulations include the high survival rate of White-winged Doves and a low harvest rate.

“White-wings have a higher annual survival rate than Mourning Doves,” Oldenburger said. “It is estimated to be about 60 percent. And the data we analyze from returns on banded birds suggests that there is a fairly low harvest rate on the species. Our studies show the harvest rate to be about 4 to 5 percent of the adult population. In other words hunters are only bagging about 5 percent of the amount of White-wings that are actually available for them to hunt.”

When it comes to habitat, there are several variables that can make specific properties attractive to White-winged Doves. Blaise Korzekwa, a TPWD wildlife biologist for Dimmit, Frio and Zavala counties, said tthere are many habitat features landowners should consider to attract huntable concentrations of White-wings.

“White-wings often feed on mast, but they also feed on seeds that are on the surface of the ground,” Korzekwa explained. “Native forbs, such as annual sunflower, ragweed and a variety of croton species are excellent examples of seed-bearing plants. They are often found in an early successional phase.”

Korzekwa suggested that landowners create early successional habitat by disturbing a small amount of soil  on their property. 

“Disking the ground during the winter months will break up the top few inches of soil and allow a variety of natural forbs to respond during the spring and summertime,” he said. “Strips of disked earth should be 10-15 feet wide and scattered throughout the area where dove management and hunting will occur.”

Korzekwa recommends that a landowner disk 5 to 10 percent or less of an area. 

“The key here is to promote strips of natural forbs, not cultivate the entire property,” he said.

Korzekwa said that White-winged Doves will readily feed on common food plot forages such as milo and sunflower. 

“To have a successful food plot in South Texas, it is almost always necessary for the plot to be irrigated,” he said.  “Non-irrigated food plots are successful in wet years, but the surrounding native habitat is also usually in an excellent state under these conditions. This typically means that a food plot is not required to result in a successful dove season.”

Korzekwa said White-winged Doves will sometimes nest and roost in colonies, but tend to have more clumped nesting and roosting areas.

“They will often be found in pairs,” he said. “White-wings often roost in residential areas but feed in areas just outside of town. Native brush species that contain fruit are an important food source, while mature trees with dense canopies and lateral limbs provide excellent roost sites. Live oaks, hackberry trees
and large mesquites are examples of prime roosting habitats in South Texas.”

Korzekwa advises that these types of trees should be left alone when conducting any mechanical or chemical brush control.

Most dove hunters hunt near a water source. Properly managing that water source can increase both dove abundance and shooting opportunities. According to Korzekwa, White-winged Doves prefer ground-level water sources that are void of thick vegetation. 

“When managing stock ponds, the shoreline should be flat or have a gradual slope and be exposed for at least 10 yards,” he suggested.  “This will attract doves, plus make the watering hole easier to hunt. Pre-season livestock grazing or shredding are the most common methods used to thin vegetation along the shorelines of tanks. Frack ponds are quite common in South Texas, but their steep sloping edges often deter doves.”

Korzekwa suggested that the key to creating an exceptional property for white-winged doves is managing for all aspects of their habitat. These include food, cover and water. 

“Putting in the extra time and effort in the off-season will usually yield phenomenal results during dove season,” he said.

Texas harvests more White-winged Doves than any other state in the country. Data from TPWD indicates that Texans averaged about 82 percent of the United States total White-wing harvests from 2003 to 2014. 

The tradition and growing popularity of the sport provides a massive economic benefit to the state. Dove hunting has an economic output estimated at $316 million annually, according to the TPWD 2015 Dove Population Status and Harvest Executive Summary. For small towns within South Texas counties this means hunters are bringing in plenty of revenue to local hotels, restaurants and small business owners. 

The outlook on White-winged Doves for this season is outstanding. Oldenburger stated that the birds had a productive nesting season that began early.

“At about the halfway point during the nesting period we already had a large number of hatchery birds taking flight,” he said. “The habitat for White-wings across the state and in the South Zone is in premium shape. Population numbers are up, and its looking like it's going to be an incredible hunting season.”

The stage is set for dove hunters to take advantage of dense concentrations of White-wings across the state before many of them migrate south for winter. This season hunters have the opportunity to hunt areas within the South Zone earlier than they ever have before.

It’s time to get out and make some memories in the field. White-winged Doves are darting around everywhere, but the action won't last long. Timing is everything. Don’t miss the opportunity.

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