The mourning dove is one of the most abundant bird species in North America and dove populations have been stable for the past 10 years. Population estimates are derived from leg-banding studies and breeding bird surveys conducted in Virginia and throughout the country. Data from recent years indicate there are around 249 million doves in the United States and around 6 million in Virginia. Mourning dove hunting is very popular and is offered in 40 U.S. States and several Canadian provinces.
In the United States, an estimated 700,000 dove hunters take an annual harvest of around 11 million doves. Recent surveys in Virginia indicate there are around 16,000 dove hunters in the state and the average harvest is around 225,000 doves annually.
In 2019, the late winter and early spring weather was cool and wet, with many areas getting above average rainfall. These conditions sometimes lead to a reduction in dove nesting success. Doves build fairly shallow nests that can get damaged by wet and windy conditions. In addition, the nestlings are susceptible to this cool and wet weather, and their survival is often lower in these conditions. So, some of the early dove nesting was likely hampered by these conditions. However, the weather improved over the summer and production appeared to be better during the latter portion of the summer.
The summer trapping and leg-banding efforts conducted by the department indicated good production of young doves in the western portion of the state and somewhat lower production in the central and eastern portions, but still around average in these latter two areas. There were many young doves observed in mid-to-late August.
Overall, production looks like it will be around average this year, with western areas seeing more birds than normal.
Dove hunter success often depends not only on the dove population and nesting success, but also on the condition of the habitat and the amount of food available. Like always, conditions varied around the state. In many areas, planting dates for agricultural crops (corn and sunflower) were close to normal, although abundant rain in mid-late April delayed some corn plantings until early May.
Good to fair precipitation throughout the summer has led to a good crop of both native vegetation and agricultural grains in most of the state, although not quite as good as last year. Recent hot and dry conditions in August have provided good drying conditions and corn harvest is slightly ahead of normal. As the corn harvest increases in early to mid-September, this will open up more feeding grounds for doves. However, this may also spread the birds out across the available habitat, and make concentrations of birds harder to find.
Some pre-season scouting may be necessary to help locate areas that doves are using. Look for fresh cut agricultural fields or areas with lots of native plant foods like millets and pokeberry.
Remember to check your birds to see if any are wearing leg-bands. The Department captures and leg-bands doves in July and August, just prior to the hunting season. The information obtained from this banding program is used for evaluating dove population status and for developing hunting season regulations. Only about 5-10% of the doves we band are recovered by hunters, and most of those recoveries (90%) occur within the state of Virginia. Out-of-state recoveries of Virginia-banded doves have come predominantly from states along the southeastern U.S., including Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and a couple from Florida. Most band recoveries occur during the first two weeks of the season, and 90% of all recoveries occur during the month of September, an indication that most dove hunting occurs during September.
Remember to report any bands you recover to the Bird Banding Laboratory website – www.reportband.gov. You will receive a “Certificate of Appreciation” that includes information on where and when the dove was banded.
Also, remember to register for HIP well before going dove hunting so you aren’t rushed trying to do everything at the last minute. Enjoy your hunting and be safe.
— Gary Costanzo, DGIF Migratory Game Bird Scientist