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Dove Banding

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A mourning dove trapped in Nebraska receives a metal leg band as part of a nationwide monitoring program.

Story and photos by Eric Fowler

A nationwide mourning dove banding program has been helping biologists monitor population trends of the species while also providing interesting stories of the movement and longevity of this migratory game bird.

The banding program began in 2003. The information it provides, combined with more obtained from the examination of wings of harvested doves, is used to estimate the number of doves in the nation and the age structure and productivity of the population.

That information, as well as hunter and harvest data gathered through the Harvest Information Program since 1999, has been used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a series of Mourning Dove Harvest Strategy plans, with the most recent approved in 2017. These plans have been used by the states to set harvest and bag limits within the frameworks established by the Service.

The dove population is declining, but only slightly, in the central part of the country, and nationwide was estimated at 249 million prior to the 2018 hunting season and considered healthy. Since the banding program began, the only change to Nebraska’s dove season has been an increase in the possession limit from 30 to 45, in 2015.

Jacob Durflinger, a Nebraska Game and Parks Commission biologist, releases a mourning dove he trapped and banded in southeastern Nebraska in 2019. Photo by Eric Fowler.

Mourning doves breed from southern Canada into Mexico, nesting in habitats ranging from trees to grasslands and crop stubble. They have benefited from urbanization and development and are abundant in cities. Those found in colder climates are among the first birds to head south to winter ranges in the southern U.S., Mexico and beyond, often in large flocks. In Nebraska, as is the case elsewhere, some doves are year-round residents, some nest here and move south for the winter, and some winter here that nested farther north.

They are the most abundant and harvested game bird in the nation, with hunting seasons in all but Michigan and seven northeastern states. Seasons start Sept. 1 in all but South Texas, and in southern states stretch into January. During the 2018-19 season, an estimated 11,600 hunters harvested 189,100 doves in Nebraska. Nationwide, 694,000 hunters took home 10.3 million birds.

Nebraska Dove Banding 2003–2019

Doves banded: 20,101
Recovered: 552

Nebraska – 421
• Texas – 56
• Mexico – 38
• Kansas – 15
• Oklahoma – 7
• Louisiana – 3
• Alabama, Tennessee – 2
• Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota and Guatemala – 1

From 2003 through 2019, 780,532 doves have been banded, primarily in the states in which they are hunted, with 48,095 returns. That includes 20,101 birds banded in Nebraska and 552 returns.

The most interesting aspect of those returns, according to Jeff Lusk, data and biometry program manager with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, has been the age of some of the doves that have been banded and harvested.

“I wouldn’t expect a dove to live past 2 years old, but we have some really old doves being recovered out there,” Lusk said.

One dove banded in Jefferson County in August 2010, the same year it hatched, was harvested in Mexico more than seven years later in October 2017. Two other birds banded as adults, one in Johnson County in 2012 and another in Phelps County in 2013, were harvested in the same counties more than six years later and could have been even older. The oldest known dove was harvested in 1998 in Florida, 30 years after it was banded in Georgia.

A map shows where doves were banded in Nebraska and where the 552 returns were recorded in North America. Map illustration by Marc Marean.

As one would expect, most birds banded in Nebraska are recovered in Nebraska (421) or in states or countries to our south. The next highest total came from Texas with 56, followed by Mexico with 38.

The country is divided into three dove management units. Nebraska is in the central unit, which runs from the Rocky Mountain States east to the Mississippi River. Lusk said the units include populations that don’t overlap, so movement east or west is rare.

“They’re not hard and fast boundaries, so sometimes you do get vagrants heading into one of the other management units,” he said.

Only six birds banded in Nebraska were recovered in a different unit. A dove banded in August 2012 in Platte County was harvested a month later in northeastern Alabama, 820 miles away. It was one of five recovered in the eastern unit. The lone return from the western unit was harvested in 2017 in Arizona, an 850-mile direct-flight in Phelps County, where it was banded the same year.

Biologists use walk-in traps baited with millet to capture mourning doves at 18 locations throughout the state. Banding starts in July and ends 10 days before the Sept. 1 season opener. Photo by Eric Fowler.

Other birds opted to keep flying north the following spring. A juvenile banded in 2015 in Johnson County was harvested the following September in Minnesota. An adult banded in 2007 in Frontier County was harvested three years later in southeastern North Dakota.

The distance champion was banded as an adult in Dawes County in July 2003 and recovered six months later in Guatemala, more than 2,100 miles away. Another bird banded in Phelps County in 2005 traveled nearly as far, recovered seven months later on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.

“I do keep my fingers crossed each year that we get some recoveries from Central or South America,” said Lusk. “But doves, being generalists, probably stop at the first suitable habitat they reach where the temps are warmer than where they came from.”

Band returns can give somewhat of a picture of the timing of the migration. Of the 72 birds that were harvested in other states in the same year they were banded, 25 were harvested during the first two weeks of the hunting season. That may lend credence to many hunters’ beliefs that doves leave at the first cold snap, which might even fall before the season opener.  

Doves – A Great Way to Start Hunting

Eli Kurrus and Jake Heard of Gretna take a bubblegum break during a hunt in Cass County. Dove hunting is the perfect introduction to hunting for kids. Photo by Jeff Kurrus.

Getting started in hunting can be daunting. Some pursuits require specialized gear. Some require more knowledge or patience than most have to start with. Dove hunting requires none of those. All you need is a shotgun, a few boxes of shells and a bucket to sit on. That makes it a great place for adults to start, and a great way for adults to introduce kids to hunting.

“Dove hunting really can be a good gateway into hunting,” said John Laux, upland game program manager with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Mourning doves are the most abundant game bird in the country and found in all 93 of Nebraska’s counties. Their numbers can provide fast action and lots of it in the field, another thing that makes dove hunting attractive. Despite there being a third as many dove hunters as pheasant hunters, more doves are harvested each year in Nebraska than any other game bird thanks to liberal bag limits and plenty of opportunity.

Laux also appreciates the fact that dove hunting takes little prep time and can be done on short notice.

“I tend to take my kids out quite a bit,” he said of his 5- and 7-year-olds, who tag along, collect plants, spot incoming birds and “play retriever.”

“We normally hunt in the evening over a pond where I know the last hour is going to be pretty good. It’s a fairly consistent adventure that you’re going to get a lot of action and you can kind of keep the kids interested.”

A water source like a pond is one of several good options when choosing a place to hunt doves, which fly to water to drink in the morning and especially the evening prior to going to roost. Ponds with open shoreline ringed with bare dirt are best. Ponds adjacent to food sources are even better. In the Sandhills, overflowing stock tanks are a great place to sit on a bucket or stool and wait for birds to arrive.

Another option is to hunt a food source. Doves prefer to feed on seeds on the ground in open areas. Wheat fields, weedy pastures and patches of hemp are good choices. So are the food plots containing sunflowers, millet or wheat that biologists plant with doves and hunters in mind on nearly 60 Game and Parks wildlife management areas around the state. Pick a place with bare ground, as doves don’t like landing in tall vegetation. Action can be best early in the morning. If doves aren’t flying, hunters can take a walk and flush birds from the food or adjacent cover just like they might a pheasant.

Another place to hunt would be the flight path between a food and water source. These spots can be a good place to escape the heavy hunting pressure that is often found on public lands in heavily-populated portions of eastern Nebraska.

Doves are a small target, and can seemingly fly as fast as and maneuver like a fighter jet, so hunters are wise to up their odds any way they can. That may mean moving to the other side of a food plot or pond if most doves are taking the same approach, which would give you an easier shot. The national average is five to seven shots per dove harvested. So while dove hunters in the right location will certainly get more shooting than a pheasant hunter, they might also do more missing.

“It can be pretty humbling at times for sure,” Laux said.

Other than plenty of shells and a shotgun, the only gear that’s really needed is dark-colored clothing or camouflage, which with mild temperatures, means only a T-shirt. “It’s pretty simple, which makes it easy to accommodate youth or other novice hunters,” Laux said.

For those who do want to step it up a notch, Laux says decoys can be extremely effective in getting doves closer. He likes to arrange them on a branch where he wants the birds to land on the edge of the pond he’s hunting. If there aren’t trees, he will bring his own branch. Spinning wing decoys are also effective.

Warm weather and the casual nature of dove hunting are other reasons to go. But for many, the reason to hunt doves is simple: It’s the first bird season to open, a chance to train a young dog, to shake off the rust, and a sign that fall is near.

About eric fowler

Nebraskaland Regional Editor Eric Fowler was born in Hastings, graduated from Ogallala High School in 1988 and completed his Bachelor’s at Chadron State College in 1993. After six years as a writer and photographer with newspapers in Chadron and Scottsbluff, he joined the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission in 1998 as Publications Editor and has been a member of the NEBRASKAland staff since 2001. Fowler spends as much time as he can in Outdoor Nebraska. When he’s not photographing wildlife, landscapes or people enjoying the state’s outdoor resources for the magazine, he’s enjoying them himself while hunting, fishing, boating, kayaking, hiking or camping with family, including his wife and son, and friends.