Dove hunting with my dad after school, I learned a valuable lesson. I was about 15, crouching in the bushes near our Westmoreland County home in a camouflaged hat and shirt, cradling my single-shot 20-gauge and waiting for one of the speedy birds.
A silhouette passed. I jumped to my feet, shouldered the shotgun and fired. As the bird fell, it told me what I'd done wrong.
"Kill-deer, kill-deer, kill-deer," it said. I was crushed. Since that day I routinely hesitate and reconfirm every target before squeezing the trigger. And if pausing for that extra instant means I don't get to take the shot, it's OK -- I remember that killdeer.
Mourning doves are among the best educational quarries available to novice hunters. They're nearby -- no need for a lengthy drive to distant hunting grounds because the doves are common throughout Pennsylvania, particularly in late summer and fall. They're plentiful -- dove hunting often results in lots of shooting, and the ammunition is relatively inexpensive. They're challenging -- zipping in from all directions at speeds up to 50 mph, mourning dove hunting teaches field positioning, camouflaging, firearm control, classic wing-shooting techniques and several aspects of hunter safety. And as I learned the wrong way that evening some 30 years ago, it teaches patience, the importance of proper target identification and humility.
A drop in the popularity of dove hunting, however, means many beginner hunters miss out on those educational opportunities before stepping out for big game. Following a trend that's holding everywhere but in the American Southeast, mourning dove hunting in Pennsylvania is in steep decline, reflecting a slump in small game hunting and a general decrease in hunting license sales.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data shows that in 2005 in Pennsylvania an estimated 40,900 hunters killed 430,300 mourning doves. By 2010, about 20,000 hunters harvested 226,500 birds, and last year just 13,500 people shot 158,800 doves.
From educational and recreational standpoints, it's a loss. Ecologically, not so much. Hunting pressure has little impact on the birds' health or numbers.
"There are fewer dove hunters out there and you may see some local population [increase], but at the regional and state levels we wouldn't expect to see a change in the population related to hunting pressure," said Lisa Williams, a wildlife biologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
One of the most abundant bird species in North America, Zenaida macroura eats the seeds of pest plants and waste grains dropped by machinery, so its impact on agriculture is minimal. It's migratory, though Pennsylvania has mourning doves year round. Doves are prolific breeders but have a high mortality rate. From boreal Canada to the Caribbean islands and Central America, harsh weather and their many predators -- hawks, owls, snakes, squirrels, raccoons and others -- keep the population stable.
Doves are managed with waterfowl under the international Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and are hunted in 40 states, with Michigan and much of New England the exceptions. Fish and Wildlife estimates that each year about 96 million doves traverse its Eastern Management Unit, which stretches from the Eastern seaboard to the Mississippi River. Last year hunters in that region harvested just 6.6 million birds, or about 7 percent. Nationwide about 1 million hunters killed 16.6 million doves in 2011, with 40 percent of the harvest in the Eastern Management Unit.
"This harvest rate is not considered high enough for hunter harvest to act as a control on dove populations," said Williams. "The decline of dove hunting in Pennsylvania and other Eastern states would not be expected to cause any large-scale change in mourning dove densities."
Included in many bird counts, banding programs and other research, the mourning dove is among the most studied birds on the continent. For two years the Game Commission has participated in a federal study that combines on-road and off-road listening points, thorough assessments of habitat, food resources, noise interference and other data. Results are currently being analyzed. A nationwide U.S. Fish and Wildlife dove hunter survey promoted in the spring was delayed until 2013, but each year the service publishes a detailed mourning dove population status report.
Mourning doves are abundant on farms, grasslands, feral fields and lightly wooded areas, and are particularly mobile near dawn and dusk. They require grit and water to digest food, and often are found between roads, roosts, watering sources and feeding areas. Any gauge shotgun will do, full choke is optimal and Nos. 7, 7 1/2 or 8 shot are preferred. Dove decoys aren't required but can be helpful in ambush wing shooting -- hide in medium brush near an open area and pick 'em off as they pass. Fish and Wildlife statistics show a high hunter success rate with 11 to 12 birds harvested per hunter in the 2011 season.
In addition to a general hunting license, dove hunters need a Pennsylvania Migratory Game Bird License. Hunters 16 and over must also have a federal duck stamp. As per 2012 regulations, licenses must be in possession, not displayed. The first part of a triple-split season runs Sept. 1-29 (Oct. 27-Nov. 24, Dec. 26-Jan. 5) with hunting hours 30 minutes before sunrise until sunset. Daily bag limit is 15, possession limit 30. Williams reminds hunters to report the harvest of leg-banded migratory game birds at www.reportband.gov, or toll-free at 800-327-BAND.