For those willing to take advantage of an early season hunting opportunity, there will be plenty of them flying through the sky this September.
The early season for mourning doves opens Sept. 2 and continues to Sept. 28. There will be no shortage of the fast-flying birds this season, offering hunters a great head-start to hone their shooting skills.
“I’m pretty optimistic on dove numbers,” said Lisa Williams, state specialist for grouse, woodcock and mourning doves with the Pennsylvania Game Commission. “We had good chick production with multiple broods and the population is stable or increasing in the East.”
Williams said the nesting season for doves got off to a bumpy start in early summer, with periods of heavy rain followed by spells of extreme heat. But once the weather straightened out, she said, so did the dove reproduction. Doves can rear two to three broods in a summer, Williams said, and some raise as many as five.
While dove numbers remain strong, those heading afield for the early hunting season continue to shrink.
According to PGC figures, more than 93,500 hunters pursued doves in 1990. In 2010 that number had plummeted to 24,490 and 13,500 in 2011.
For a season that is tailor-made for hunter enjoyment, Williams can’t understand the decline in participation.
“It doesn’t surprise me in the sense that most of our small game hunting has tailed off a bit,” she said. “The habitat has changed and a lot of hunters have shifted to turkey and deer.”
Williams can list plenty of reasons why dove season should appeal to more hunters. The weather during the early season is mild, it’s a relaxing form of hunting perfect for a youth hunter, doves are a great way to hone shooting skills, they’re tasty and, best of all, numerous.
“The thing about doves is the numbers are phenomenal,” she said. “It’s an active form of hunting where you don’t have to spend a lot of time and money to get out there.”
While the number of hunters may be down compared to 20 years ago, dove hunting is experiencing a resurgence of sorts. Last season, according to harvest information from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 18,000 hunters took 203,200 doves in Pennsylvania. That’s a 33 percent increase in hunter numbers and a 28 percent upswing in the dove harvest compared to the 2011-2012 season.
While Pennsylvania isn’t considered a dove hotspot like the southern states, the population is expanding at a rate of 1.3 percent annually from 1983 to 2009. Williams attributes the increase to the fact that doves produce multiple broods each spring and summer, and they can adapt to virtually any habitat, including developed areas.
When it comes to hunting, Williams said success is based on the type of agriculture in a particular area. Unlike crows, she said, doves don’t damage crops when they feed, focusing instead on the grain left behind from harvest and on the grasses, such as foxtail, that appear in farm fields.
Other areas to find doves include places with water and grit, such as gravel quarries.
And then there’s timing. Approximately 85 percent of the dove harvest in Pennsylvania occurs in September, and that’s why Williams urges hunters to take advantage of the early season. If they don’t, she said, they are missing a great early season hunting opportunity.
“My goal is to get people out there dove hunting. September is a nice lead-in to the fall hunting seasons, dove reproduction is finished and you get that mix of birds before migration starts,” Williams said.