White-Wings: Expanding Their Range
Article by Nate Skinner
Photos by Russell Graves, Butch Ramirez, Dave Richards, James Richards, Joseph Richards, David J. Sams
For the fourth year in a row, Texas dove hunters can take advantage of statewide early September opportunities to pursue the country’s most popular game bird. These increased opportunities are a result of the expansion of the Special White-winged Dove Area, which went into effect for the 2017-2018 season. This regulation change expanded the Special White-winged Dove Area to include the entire South Dove Zone.
Prior to the regulation change, South Zone hunters had to wait until later in the month to join in on the action that Central and North Zone hunters were already enjoying, unless they were able to hunt in the Special White-winged Dove Area, which was restricted to the Rio Grande Valley region at that time. The reason behind the expansion of the Special White-winged Dove Area is quite simple—the range of White-winged Dove in Texas has significantly increased over the years in comparison to what it once was.
History and Expansion of White-wings in Texas
Historically White-winged Doves were only found in Willacy, Hidalgo, Cameron and Starr counties in the Rio Grande Valley region, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Webless Migratory Game Bird Program Leader Owen Fitzsimmons.
“In the early part of the last century, it is estimated that these counties had populations of anywhere from 4 to 12 million White-wings,” Fitzsimmons said. “With that being a pretty broad range of population estimates, it’s important to know that it is also in comparison to the 16 million White-winged Dove that we now have statewide.”
Fitzsimmons said that land clearing for certain agricultural practices within the Rio Grande Valley wiped out much of the White-wing nesting habitat during the early 1900s.
“This, combined with hunting pressure, rendered a noticeable decline in White-winged Dove populations,” Fitzsimmons said. “In the 1940s, TPWD began implementing hunting regulations for White-wings.”
Fitzsimmons said that throughout the 1930s through 1950s, landowners in the Rio Grande Valley planted citrus groves and orchards.
“It was a trend that gained serious momentum during this time period, and White-wings began using the new vegetation as nesting habitat,” Fitzsimmons said. “Over time, historical populations in the region began to bounce back. Unfortunately, hard freezes killed off the majority of the citrus orchards within the Rio Grande Valley from the 1960s-1980s, which resulted in a significant loss of nesting habitat for White-winged Doves.”
During the 1980s and early 1990s, Fitzsimmons said that White-wings began migrating northward out of their traditional Rio Grande Valley range.
“We think that this northward expansion was the result of several variables, including climate change, loss of nesting habitat and changes in land use” Fitzsimmons said. “There was also food and habitat for White-wings available in locations that didn’t always have them.”
From the 1990s to present day, Fitzsimmons said that the dispersal of White-wings northward throughout the state has been extremely evident.
“We are finding them all over,” he said. “Since the early 1990s, we’ve had population estimates as high as 1 million White-wings in urban areas like Corpus Christi and San Antonio. They have expanded their range right up the I-35 corridor to the Dallas-Fort Worth region, and we are even seeing good numbers of them in parts of East Texas too.”
Fitzsimmons said that similar expansions are taking place across the entire United States.
Urban Hot Spots
According to Fitzsimmons, 75-85 percent of White-winged Doves in Texas are found in and around urban areas.
“We consider a good portion of these birds to be nonmigratory, based on banding data,” he said. “Harvests of banded White-wings are showing that most of these birds aren’t traveling very far from urban areas, and some never go further than a 500-yard radius outside of the town they reside in.”
Fitzsimmons said that urban areas offer White-winged Doves everything they need to survive.
“Most have parks or neighborhoods with mature trees for nesting and roosting, plus there is typically plenty of water available nearby, as well as food in the form of backyard birdseed from bird feeders,” said Fitzsimmons. “If there are agricultural practices taking place near the town they are living in, then White-wings really have it made.”
TPWD Wildlife Biologist for Wharton and Fort Bend counties Clint Faas said that the El Campo area has become a major hotspot and hub for excellent White-winged Dove hunts.
“We’ve seen a noticeable increase in White-wings in El Campo over the last 20 years,” Faas said. “This is likely a result of both range expansion and a unique habitat created from agricultural fields in close proximity to roosting habitat, water and safety in town. Dove hunts in the late 1990s in the El Campo area typically saw a lot more Mourning Doves harvested than White-wings. Nowadays, it’s the opposite.”
The four components of White-winged Dove habitat, according to Faas, include food, shelter, water and space.
“El Campo has all of these things,” he said. “There are an abundance of large trees, and many folks have modified their farming practices by planting crops that are specifically for doves.”
Faas said that the Edna, Rosenberg and Fulshear areas all are beginning to see impressive numbers of White-winged Doves.
TPWD South Texas wildlife Biologist, Blaise Korzekwa, said that even though the Rio Grande Valley still remains a stronghold for White-winged Doves, other areas within the southern portion of the state have become hotspots as well.
“Well-known locations to find White-wings in South Texas include Hondo, Uvalde, Pearsall and nearly every town around San Antonio and along the I-35 corridor,” Korzekwa said.
Korzekwa said that the northward expansion of White-winged Dove range outside of South Texas is also evident.
“Areas round Abilene and Coleman have become some of the most recent hotspots,” he said. “These towns offer urban areas with mature trees for roosting, as well as agricultural fields outside of town for feeding. Nearly every town along their northward expansion that offers quality roost sites and ample feeding opportunities is seeing an uptick in White-wings.”
Banding and Harvest Rates
Each year, TPWD staff members place leg bands on White-wings from June to August, in order to monitor the factors that influence their populations. Information from hunter-reported bands and recoveries provide estimates of harvest and survival rates, which are used with data from the Harvest Information Program (HIP), Parts Collection Survey, and other harvest surveys to help manage populations and set annual hunting regulations.
HIP is a national program that estimates migratory game bird harvest and hunting activity by asking hunters a series of questions about their experience during the previous season. The Parts Collection Program uses wings from harvested birds to determine species, sex and age composition. Other harvest surveys are sent out to help fine-tune harvest estimates across the state.
“Doves are the most popular game bird in the country, and Texas leads the nation in overall harvest and hunter numbers,” Fitzsimmons said. “It’s critical that we understand how harvest affects White-winged dove populations. Much of the information we use to manage the birds comes from hunters, so I urge all hunters to report any bands that they find. I also encourage all hunters to be as responsive and accurate as possible when responding to any harvest surveys or HIP questions during their license purchasing process.”
Overall, Fitzsimmons said that Texans are not harvesting a huge percentage of the White-winged Dove population.
What Can Landowners Do?
With food availability being key, landowners can almost take the mindset of, “Build it, and they will come,” when it comes to trying to create the perfect habitat for White-winged Doves.
“White-wings like to feed on top of things,” said Faas. “Sunflowers, millet, sorghum, corn and other hard grains that these birds can perch on will attract White-winged Doves.”
In dry environments, Faas said that stock tanks or other watering facilities can help attract White-wings as well.
“Certain modifications to water features will help provide the birds with access to water,” Faas said. “Stock tanks and ponds should have a gently sloping area, void of heavy vegetation that will allow White-wings to land and walk down to the water.”
He continued, “Water troughs should be kept full so that the birds can easily reach the water, and overflows can be created so that they will drain into an earthen or concrete depression or pool. This will allow the birds to drink water on the ground.”
Faas said that folks also tend to forget about White-wings and their nutritional requirements after the season.
“If you can continue to provide a food source later into the season or during the winter months to sustain the birds for a longer period of time, you are more likely to have them return in future years.”
Although White-wings typically roost in urban areas, Korzekwa said that landowners should protect mature trees with lateral branching and dense canopies.
“White-wings will utilize these trees if they choose to roost in rural areas,” he said. “Live oaks are one of the most common roost sites, but mature mesquite and hackberry trees are also preferred. In South Texas, mast from brush, such as seeds from native sunflower and croton species, readily attract White-wings.”
Korzekwa said that food plots with large seeded plants, such as commercial-grade sunflowers, are very successful at pulling doves out of urban areas to feed. Endless flocks of White-wings pictured by hunters are often a result of birds leaving urban roost sites and going to feed in nearby agricultural fields.
September is here, and White-wings are everywhere. As the expansion of these game birds’ range continues, this could quickly become the new, long-term norm.
Opportunity is knocking, so take advantage of it. Grab your shotgun, and go find some White-winged Doves near you.