Mourning doves are truly renewable

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According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) 2015 Population Status Report, mourning doves are one of the most abundant birds in North America. They occur in all lower 48 states. Biologists band tens of thousands of doves annually to estimate abundance. In 2014, the total U.S. population was estimated at more than 273.6 million doves.

The USFWS uses three management units to manage dove populations — eastern, central, and western. The eastern population in 2014 was estimated at 68.3 million, the central population at 161.7 million, and the western population at 43.7 million.

Dove hunter numbers and harvest figures in 2014 reflect the same trends in population abundance. In the central management unit, 427,100 dove hunters killed more than 7.6 million doves; in the eastern unit 310,200 hunters killed 4.9 million doves, and in the west 102,300 hunters killed 1.3 million doves. Nationally, 839,600 dove hunters killed almost 14 million doves.

In the 40 states where dove hunting is legal, Texas killed the most, (5.2 million), and Rhode Island killed the fewest (1,200). Harvest numbers from other states of interest were 147,200 (Pennsylvania), 168,800 (Ohio), and 7,000 (West Virginia). Clearly, mourning doves are a renewable resource.

Popular targets

Doves are such popular targets among hunters because they test a shooter’s skill like no other bird. Erratic flight at speeds up to 70 miles per hour make this hunt among the year’s most challenging. A typical dove hunter uses eight shells for each dove taken, a statistic that suggests that dove hunting is indeed for sharpshooters.

The big biological question is, how can doves sustain such high harvest rates? It helps to be a generalist in every sense of the word.

Mourning doves nest across North America, from southern Mexico into Canada. They eat seeds of all sorts that can be found anywhere, even at backyard feeders stocked with white millet, cracked corn, and sunflower seeds.

Their nesting habits are equally broad. Here in the east, they build a flimsy platform of twigs in both evergreen and deciduous trees along forest edges, in orchards and backyards. In western deserts and prairies, where trees are few, they’re content to nest right on the ground.

Nest early, often

Another interesting question is how a species that lays only two eggs per nest is able to maintain a healthy population. The simple answer is to nest early and often. Pairs bond for the breeding season, which runs from March through September. In some southern states, they breed all year long.

In this part of the country, mourning doves usually raise at least three broods per year. The parents take turns incubating two white eggs for 14 days. The female tends the nest from dusk to dawn, and the male incubates during the day.

While the young are in the nest, parents feed their young “pigeon’s milk,” a pale nutritious liquid that adults produce in their crops (the expanded, food-storage portion of the gullet). Several times each day the young induce their parents to regurgitate a helping of pigeon’s milk by reaching into the parent’s mouth to feed.

Leaving the nest

Young doves leave the nest when about 12 days old, though they often remain in the nest tree for several more days. When they finally leave the nest tree, they are independent and join flocks of other juvenile doves. Though fledglings wear a juvenile plumage, they are difficult to distinguish from adult doves. That’s why I so often hear from readers who ask why they never see “baby doves.”

By the time young doves have left the nest, the parents have already begun another family. Females often lay eggs in a new nest before the previous brood has left its nest tree.

By producing a series of back-to-back nests, doves multiply rapidly, even though they raise only two chicks at a time.

A seed-based diet, general habitat requirements, an extended nesting season, and continuous reproduction during the breeding season make mourning doves an ideal game species.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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