Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

WING SHOT MOURNING DOVE POPULATION HOLDS STEADY DESPITE A DECLINE IN HUNTING [Corrected 09/01/12]

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

WING SHOT MOURNING DOVE POPULATION HOLDS STEADY DESPITE A DECLINE IN HUNTING [Corrected 09/01/12]

Article excerpt

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. …

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