Small Game Management in Georgia
The mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) nests in all 48 contiguous states. In the southern states, the year-round resident dove population is joined each fall by northern migrants. The ever-present dove is Georgia's most popular and numerous game bird. It is hunted by more Georgians than any game species except deer, and the dove harvest is by far the highest of any species in the state. This bird's popularity does not stop with the hunter, since it also is a favorite of bird watchers and nature photographers.
In contrast to most other game birds, the mourning dove has benefited from most modern agriculture practices. It has adapted to urbanization and remains widespread and abundant while other species, such as bobwhite quail, have decreased significantly or have required intensive management to maintain local populations.
The mourning dove is a member of the pigeon family, Columbidae, characterized by the production of "pigeon milk" in its crop for feeding its young. It is a streamlined bird with a small head and a long pointed tail. Adults range in total length from 11-13 inches and appear, at a distance, slate gray in coloration with large white spots on the tail. Adult males exhibit a light blue crown and nape with rosy breast feathers blending to a reddish fawn color on their sides. Females normally have a tan or brownish crown, nape and breast feathers. Immature doves are best identified by the whitish or buff-colored edging on their wing coverts and when very young, appear mottled on the breast, head and neck areas.
Reproduction - Doves have been known to nest year round in parts of Georgia, but most nesting occurs between February and October. The nesting peak normally occurs during the spring months. Usually two eggs (rarely three) are laid in a flimsy nest that consists of a few twigs on the fork of a limb or other fairly flat place. Occasionally, doves use abandoned nests of other birds as a platform on which to construct a nest. Ground nesting can occur but is uncommon. Incubation duties are shared by the breeding pair during the 14-day incubation period. Upon hatching, the nestlings (called "squabs") are fed for the first few days with pigeon milk regurgitated by the adults. The milk is gradually replaced by seeds, and in 12-14 days the young leave the nest. After staying with the adults for a short time, the young begin congregating to form the flocks seen during summer. The adults soon repeat the nesting cycle, usually producing from 3-5 broods each season.
Mortality - It is estimated that 70 percent of the dove population will die each year. Approximately three-fourths of this mortality is from natural causes, and 15-20 percent is from legal hunting.
Nest failures limit dove populations more than any other factor. Only one nest in four successfully fledges young. The flimsy character of dove nests makes them particularly vulnerable to storms and other severe weather and probably accounts for the largest percentage of nesting failures. A variety of nest predators, including blue jays, crows, squirrels, raccoons and snakes, also destroy dove nests.
Widespread ice and snow sometimes take a heavy toll on wintering dove populations by making food unavailable. There are two diseases that are important mortality factors in doves. The most prevalent is trichomoniasis, a parasitic disease of the upper digestive tract that causes serious die-offs. Trichomoniasis is characterized by the formation of a cheese-like substance in the mouth, throat or crop, which interferes with the ingestion of food and usually causes death from starvation. Dove pox, a viral infection, produces symptoms similar to trichomoniasis, but is less common and much less devastating to dove populations.
Food Habits - Doves feed on seeds from a variety of cultivated and wild plants. Some favorite cultivated species include wheat, corn, browntop millet, proso millet, grain sorghum, peanuts, oats, rye, peas, sunflower and benne (sesame).
Wild plants that are most important in the diet of Georgia doves include wooly croton (dove weed), pokeweed, ragweed, foxtail grasses, wild millet, morning glory, partridge pea, crabgrass, chickweed and Johnson grass.
Animal foods make up a very small portion of the dove's food intake. Insects are rarely consumed, but snail shells are sometimes found in dove crops, presumably because they provide needed minerals. Small amounts of grit are eaten by doves to aid with grinding food in the gizzard.
Habitat Requirements - Although it is considered to be a farm game species, the mourning dove is found throughout Georgia. Typical dove habitat is not easily defined because doves have adapted to so many habitat types. However, their basic requirements include food, water, nesting cover, roosting cover and resting sites.
Because doves have neither strong beaks nor feet developed for scratching, they must feed primarily on grain and other seeds lying free on the ground. Therefore, open grain fields are preferred over areas with thick ground cover.
Most doves nest around fields or clearings that supply food during the nesting season. Nests commonly are found in overgrown fencerows, hedgerows, scrub oak brush, young pine plantations, peach orchards, large hardwoods and pines and ornamental shrubbery.
Roosting and resting cover is provided by various habitat types including pine plantations, mature hardwoods, brushy thickets, dead snags and power-lines. Cover is seldom a limiting factor of dove populations in Georgia.
Unlike quail, which can obtain adequate water from foodstuffs and dew, doves must have a daily source of surface water such as lakes, ponds, streams or even mud puddles. Preferred watering sites have bare ground next to the water to provide easy access. Doves may fly considerable distances to favored watering sites, especially during droughts.
Although the mourning dove is a common game bird on Georgia's farms, the fact that it is migratory and highly mobile even during the breeding season limits the effectiveness of localized management practices. The fate of doves in Georgia depends largely upon practices carried out in the Eastern Dove Management Unit, comprising all of the eastern United States from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River. Overall harvest management of migratory birds, such as doves, is in the hands of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They set bag limits, shooting hours and a season framework that currently extends from September 1 through January 15. Within that framework, states may select either a 70-day season with a 12-bird daily limit or a 60-day season with a 15-bird daily limit.
Hunting regulations are based primarily on the results of an annual, nationwide dove call-count survey conducted in the spring to determine the status of the breeding population. The dove harvest can then be regulated by manipulating bag limits and seasons according to results of the call-counts. While breeding populations may vary somewhat from year to year, there has been no significant, long-term change in the number of doves in the Eastern Dove Management Unit since the surveys began in 1966. Consequently, regulations have changed little over the years.
General land management practices that provide for the basic year-round needs of doves can have a positive impact on local dove populations. While doves are migratory, the early season harvest is made up almost entirely of birds produced in Georgia. Migrants arrive later and make up a significant percentage of the late season bag, particularly in southern Georgia.
To help ensure good dove populations in the early fall, summer feeding fields can be provided. If normal farming practices do not make grains or other seeds available during the summer, food can be provided by leaving strips of unharvested crops or by planting small fields. Strips mowed or disked through these fields can be very attractive to doves; the same treatment is also very effective in fallow fields that are left to grow up in weeds.
Dove fields must be well planned if they are to attract large numbers of doves for hunting. For shooting purposes, a field should be a minimum of 5 acres (larger is better) and if hunters are likely to be shooting from both sides, it should be at least 100 yards wide. A good rule of thumb is to adjust hunter density to fewer than one per acre to provide for a high-quality hunting experience. Dove fields are more effective when they are irregular in shape and have borders of woodland or brushy fencerows to provide good vantage points for hunters.
Fields for dove hunting should be managed so that crops mature at least 10-14 days before the desired period for shooting. A number of cultivated grain crops offer attractive food for doves. Those commonly planted for dove fields include browntop millet, proso millet, sunflower, corn, wheat, benne (sesame) and grain sorghum. Crops planted in rows are preferable to those that are broadcast ( summary of planting recommendations).
For early season shooting, especially in middle and north Georgia, browntop millet has long been the preferred crop, since it is a favorite dove food and matures early with minimum attention. Browntop may be planted as a hay crop, a seed crop to be harvested after maturity, or specifically for doves either in rows or by broadcasting. Millet should be planted so that it matures at least two weeks before the first anticipated shoot. However, earlier planting allows the mowing of strips to attract and hold birds during August in the event other food is not available. Millet left standing in rows usually continues to attract doves during the entire early season. Proso millet, which takes longer to mature, is similar in attractiveness and planting requirements to browntop. In addition, wheat can be planted in the fall and then managed to provide food during the summer. When used in combination with strips of browntop millet, food can be made available from early summer through fall.
Excellent early shooting opportunities may occur in those areas where corn or grain sorghum has been cut for silage. Harvested peanut fields are prime attractants in south Georgia, often pulling doves away from other food sources. In fact, few crops attract doves in appreciable numbers when harvested peanut fields are nearby.
Late season dove shooting is limited mainly to harvested fields of late-maturing crops like grain sorghum and corn. Combined or "hogged off" corn fields can produce excellent dove hunting in December and January. Sunflowers and benne also persist into the late season providing good dove shooting opportunities. Under the right conditions, burning weedy fields may be all that is needed to attract birds. Fallow fields containing croton, ragweed, pokeweed, wild grasses or volunteer stands of small grains from the previous year can be mowed, disked or burned to free the seeds and provide an open feeding area.
Normally, a dove field is planted for either the early or late hunting season. However, it is possible to manage a field for both seasons by alternately planting strips 25-30 feet wide of various crops that mature at different times. If well planned, this technique provides dove food for the duration of the hunting season. Interspersing crops with disked strips helps maintain bare soil and increases the attractiveness of the field to doves.
Locating a dove field near a favored waterhole or roosting area can enhance the prospects for good dove hunting. Care should be taken to avoid overshooting an area by limiting hunting to once or twice a week.
Historically, the illegal practice of shooting doves over bait has been a significant problem in Georgia and other states. Often there is considerable confusion on the part of hunters and landowners over what constitutes "baiting" or a "baited field." Baiting is currently defined as "… the direct or indirect placing, exposing, depositing, distributing or scattering of grain, salt, or other feed that could serve as a lure or attraction for doves to, on or over any area where hunters are attempting to take them." A baited area is any area where bait has been placed. Any baited area is considered baited for 10 days following the complete removal of the bait. Baiting regulations do not prohibit the taking of doves on or over any land where corn, wheat, peanuts or any other feed has been distributed as a result of "normal" agricultural planting and harvesting, or as a result of manipulation of a crop or other feed on the land where it was grown for wildlife management purposes. Official recommendations of the Cooperative Extension Service of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture are used to define normal agriculture practices. Crops may be mowed, disked, bushhogged or knocked down and made more available to doves so long as they are not harvested and then redistributed to the field. Questions regarding baiting issues should be addressed to the DNR Wildlife Resources Division.
Doves do not stay in one place indefinitely, but do tend to return to the same area each season, with the larger concentrations occupying the most attractive places. While good dove management consists primarily of regulating the harvest over a large geographic area, local attention to the basic needs of the birds will greatly increase the chances of successful dove hunting opportunities.
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