By David Rainer
Understanding what constitutes legal dove hunting should be easier this fall after the Alabama Cooperative Extension System published new planting guidelines for Alabama.
In previous years, the state had been divided into three zones with three sets of acceptable planting dates for top-sown wheat. The new recommendations eliminate the zones and set the acceptable dates for top-sowing wheat as August 1 through November 30.
Conservation Commissioner N. Gunter Guy Jr. had recently expressed to the Enforcement Section of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division (WFF) that he wanted to remove the reluctance of hunters and landowners to participate in dove season for fear of running afoul of the regulations.
Commissioner Guy and the Enforcement Section met with the Extension System and discussed the concern. The Extension System recognized the need to update some planting recommendations and according produced the ANR-1467 brochure.
“Dove hunting is a tradition in Alabama that is much more than shooting birds,” Guy said. “It’s a social event where families and friends can come together, share a meal and reconnect, as well as enjoy a day in the dove field. We want to do everything possible to make sure that the dove-hunting tradition is preserved and revitalized.”
WFF Biologist Jeff Makemson, who has participated in the dove-banding project in recent years, said the change in acceptable planting dates is a big deal.
“That’s a huge change,” Makemson said. “The Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES), which is the authority on planting, just recently made that change. It allows the farmer more flexibility. It also removes some of the fear dove hunters have of hunting over a field with top-sown wheat.
“I think it’s a positive change. It’s hard to justify why one person in Marengo County and another person in the next county, say Greene County, had a 14-day difference on acceptable planting dates. That’s a substantial difference, especially when it comes to dove hunting. It’s just much more of a common-sense approach. The farmer, who has been planting for 40, 50 or 60 years, knows what to do. I also think it will put our dove hunters much more at ease.”
Because the mourning dove is a migratory bird, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has authority over the management of the birds. However, agricultural practices vary so widely from state to state that USFWS defers to the state Cooperative Extension Systems to determine what are normal agricultural operations in each state.
ACES has published a new brochure, “ANR-1467 Mourning Dove Biology and Management in Alabama,” that outlines the guidelines for dove management and acceptable agricultural practices that relate to dove hunting.
Makemson said the parameters and planting recommendations for wheat, other than the elimination of the zones, have remained the same.
“You still can’t pile wheat up on a field,” he said. “It has to be evenly distributed. Top-sowing is an acceptable practice, but it must be done on a prepared seed bed.”
The brochure states that multiple sowing of seeds on the same ground without a valid reason (drought or flooding) would not be a “normal” agricultural practice. Neither is any area where the wheat is piled, clumped or concentrated. The planting rate for top-sown wheat should not exceed 200 pounds per acre.
Makemson said he definitely noticed a decline in participation rates for dove hunting from the peak periods of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
“I have noticed it and have heard it from a lot of people,” he said. “Hunters love dove hunting, but it’s just not worth the risk of unknowingly violating the law. Most dove hunters aren’t experienced farmers. Go out for a good afternoon of shooting with family and friends and they end up being ticketed or arrested.
“I do think these new planting dates will ease some of that fear, for sure.”
Makemson said the best way hunters can make sure they are perfectly legal is to plant and manipulate standing crops.
“True dove management and dove managers have year-round management plans,” he said. “They just don’t top-sow wheat. The managers I know manipulate crops. They plant in the spring and leave wheat standing and start bush-hogging strips. The ones who plant and manage throughout the year are the ones who really reap the rewards.”
Makemson said the last dove-hunting survey conducted in Alabama showed that about 61,000 hunters spent about 100,000 days in the dove field with a harvest of a little more than 1 million birds.
“Nationally, mourning dove is the No. 1 hunted and harvested game bird in the U.S.,” he said. “The U.S. population is estimated at 380 million birds. All the research I’ve seen is we’re not hurting the population. If it was hurting the population, the Fish and Wildlife Service wouldn’t allow it.
“They’re highly reproductive animals. There may be a few on the nest at the start of the season, but it’s not a significant amount. They will nest several times a year. They nest as early as February, and you may find some nesting in October. They’re prolific procreators. Those hatched early in the year will be reproductively active later in the year. That’s why we have such an abundance of mourning doves in Alabama.”
Makemson said he has been banding doves in Alabama for about 10 years. The project bands 1,000 or more doves per year.
“What we found out is the doves we band in July and August are resident birds,” he said. “They don’t migrate. Alabama has more birds that visit from other states than any other state in the nation. We harvest birds from 16 different states from as far away as Ohio and New England. Once you come south it’s hard to go anywhere else. We’re blessed in Alabama.”
USFWS set the season frameworks in each state. Alabama has a 70-day season with a three-way split. Alabama’s dove seasons are in two zones. The north zone dates are Sept. 7-Oct. 6, Oct. 19-Nov. 2 and Dec. 7-Dec. 31. The south zone dates are Sept. 21-Sept. 29, Oct. 12-Oct. 27 and Nov. 29-Jan. 12. The bag limit and possession limit is 15 birds per person.
Kevin Dodd, WFF Chief of Enforcement, said the new planting guidelines should make it easier on the state Conservation Enforcement Officers.
“The Extension System recognized there are a lot of variables in the planting that had to do with soil conditions or weather conditions, and they have given farmers and landowners a broad range of what constitutes a normal planting period,” Dodd said. “This should make it a lot easier on our staff. If it’s top-sown winter wheat on a prepared seed bed that is evenly spread in that time period, as long as it hasn’t been repetitively seeded, we’re probably going to move on. If we start seeing whole kernel corn, millet or sunflower seeds, unless it’s grown on that site, then we’ve got a problem. That’s the sort of thing that catches our eye. Otherwise, we’re going to be focusing on licenses, plugs and limits.”
While winter wheat gets most of the publicity, Dodd said dove hunters would be much better off with a different planting strategy.
“We advise anything but winter wheat,” he said. “Winter wheat plantings are a flash in the pan for doves. Any grains that you plant on site and manipulate are much longer lasting. You get a lot more bang for the buck, so to speak, with sunflowers, millet or corn. The conflict seems to come up over winter wheat. People don’t think about it until late August or September so they’re looking for a place where they’ve top-sown winter wheat.
“The last thing we want is for anyone to stop dove hunting. Everyone recognizes that this is the one, big social event where you can get a lot of folks together in a hunting environment and have a good time. It’s good for introducing newcomers of all ages and backgrounds. We certainly don’t want to lose that. These recommendations certainly make it a much more user-friendly sport now.”
Dodd does offer one caveat from the USFWS regarding the intent of the planting.
“It’s on the Fish and Wildlife website that if the seed is freshly planted solely for the purpose of attracting doves into gun range, then it will be considered baiting,” he said. “That means you’ve got to have a legitimate need or use for top-sowing wheat. There is a long list of good reasons for doing that – erosion control, pasture grass, wildlife food plots or any reason outlined in the brochure. If that’s the case, we’re good with that.”
PHOTOS: (By David Rainer) Recent changes in planting recommendations from the Alabama Cooperative Extension System should help alleviate a reluctance by landowners and hunters to continue the traditional September social gatherings for fear of inadvertently violating game regulations. Dove hunting provides an excellent opportunity for families to enjoy the great outdoors.