Lonesome for Doves

Illustration by Gordon Allen
Illustration by Gordon Allen
By Tom Huggler

The patch of sunflowers, heads bowed to the east as though in prayer, was full of mourning doves. We startled each other—their whistle of wings the instinctive trigger for gun up! If you, too, hunt the wingshooter’s favorite target, you know that that sound means it’s too late. But it didn’t matter that September 1 morning when hunters were shooting opening-day doves in 40-some other states. My shotgun was locked up at home. I live in Michigan, where it’s illegal to kill a mourning dove.

I planted those sunflowers on my property just to see if the doves would come. And, oh, did they come. I like to think that at least one of the 15 birds I shot in Indiana a few days later was a dove that had enjoyed the fruits of my labor. 

It’s hard to say. After all, Michigan contributes an estimated 4 million migrant doves to the continental US population of 300 million to 400 million each fall. Seven Northeastern states where doves are also protected add millions more. 

These facts and others are well known. For example, a breeding pair of doves raises from two to five broods each spring and summer. An estimated 60 percent of doves don’t live more than a year, and hunter harvest amounts to only 5 percent of annual mortality. So why are doves protected anywhere? 

Politics, for sure. The mourning dove is defended by an anti-hunting PR war chest that convinced Michigan voters—by spreading misinformation and funding a slick ad campaign that appealed to emotions—to reject a proposed dove hunt by a 69-to-31 percent margin. That defeat occurred in 2006; voters have not seen a similar proposal on the ballot since.

Because the passenger pigeon, extinct since 1914 (ironically on September 1 in the Cincinnati Zoo), was also in the dove family and thrived on hardwood mast throughout the northern tier of states, legislatures from Michigan to Maine banned the killing of all Columbidae (dove) species. 

I don’t know how to revive a tradition lost for more than a century. What I do know—and greatly appreciate—is that I can hunt doves elsewhere. And I have in several states as well as in Mexico and Argentina. There is no better way to learn how good a wingshot you are. 

In Argentina, to find out, I limited myself to four boxes of shells daily. The first day I shot 38 eared doves for 100 shells. The next day I improved to 41 for 100. On the last day I scored 54—not bad for a guy with a borrowed 28-gauge Franchi. 

It’s a damn shame I can’t practice with my own gun on my own place.  

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