Alerted to a bird approaching from his rear, Joe Watts rose from his stool, spun around, lifted his 12-gauge and filled the Madison County air with No. 8 lead. A dove’s smooth flight suddenly turned into an end-over-end free fall that stopped right at Watt’s feet. Before he could pick it up or replace a shell in his gun, another hunter was shouting again.
"Joe, a puffer, it’s coming in over that tree," came the warning.
Watts looked, saw the big bird come over the limbs and dropped it with another single shot, and this dove landed just a few feet away from the first.
"I believe I just got a Canton double," said Watts, who lives in the central Mississippi town about 20 miles north of Jackson. "The first was a mourning dove and the second a collared dove. How about that?"
As he held the two birds up for a photo, another bird came speeding into range. Watts, who had not reloaded, had to drop the two birds in his hand to get a shot at the third one coming in a rush.
When he raised his gun, the bird spooked and with an odd flash of its wings, changed directions. It did not help its fate.
Watts dropped it with his third and final shell.
"Did you see that?" he hollered. "I swear I saw a flash of white on that bird when it changed directions. I know I did."
The bird actually landed closer to me, so I walked over and picked it up.
"Dang Joe, you just scored a triple," I said, walking over to hand him his bird. "I think you just shot the first white-winged dove I’ve ever picked up in Mississippi. I shot several on a hunt in Texas a few years ago but this is the first one I’ve seen here."
Other hunters in the group gathered to see the odd dove, which in recent years has been expanding its range east from Texas.
Since I handed that white-winged dove to Watts three years ago, many others have been reported in Mississippi — so much so that white-winged doves are now included in the description of legal birds.
"White wings are still rare, but we are seeing more of them in the state," said Scott Baker, the dove program coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. "They aren’t really native to our state but they have expanded their range and I think there’s more here now than ever. I think the bigger populations will be in the southern half of the state, but there will be some in the north."
With Mississippi’s 2012-13 dove season opening statewide on Sept. 1, hunters will be provided the most-liberal frameworks available through the North American Migratory Bird Treaty.
"It’s 70 days, with a 15-bird daily bag limit," said Ed Penny, the wildlife bureau director for the MDWFP. "Our hunters will have plenty of opportunity, in both the north and south zones."
The bag limit includes only the native mourning dove and the white-winged dove. Eurasian collared doves, which are increasing in population every year, are considered non-native to the United States by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and are legal to harvest without limit.
Eurasian doves arrived in the country in the ’70s, resulting from an accidental release of a few birds at a pet shop in the Bahamas during a burglary. According to the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, they arrived in Florida in the mid ’70s and began expanding their range in the Southeastern United States.
According to Baker, the collared birds feel at home in Mississippi, nesting successfully and multiplying rapidly over the past two decades. They have become quite popular with hunters.
"What’s not to like?" Watts said. "They are about twice the size of a normal dove and easy to hit. We started calling them puffers for a couple of reasons, the first of which is they kind of puff along. Second, when you shoot one, there’s a big puff of feathers.
"Some of the guys I hunt with won’t keep them and say they are tougher to eat, but I disagree and take as many as I can get. They actually eat just as good as doves. You have to be gentler with them during cooking because of their size; it’s easy to overcook the outside of them to get the inside done, but they are very good."
The day Watts took the white-winged dove, several hunters had limits of mourning doves and an equal amount of , if not more, collared doves.
One reason why the collared doves have adapted so well to Mississippi is that they frequent bird feeders in backyards. They are just as popular with birders as they are hunters.
When grain crop harvests begin, they make use of the natural food sources and wander into the firing range of hunters.
A fourth dove species, the Inca dove, is also spreading from its normal range and has been spotted in Mississippi. The Inca is native to the desert Southwest, Texas and Central America, but has spread east and has been spotted in backyard nests and around bird feeders. One place they do not need to be found is in a hunter’s game bag.
"Because they are native to the United States, and not considered a game bird, they are protected and considered illegal to harvest," Baker said. "I’ve heard of a case of an Inca being shot in Mississippi, and the hunter had no idea what it was. We need to avoid that if at all possible."
Incas have a few identifiable characteristics that can help hunters. They are typically smaller than mourning and white-winged doves, and a lot smaller than the collared doves. Their markings are far different from all three. They have a reddish/orange coloration on the outer edges of the top of the wing and on the full underside of the wings that is noticeable in flight. Their backs and bellies have a scaled look thanks to black edges to their feathers.
Two key factors that should limit their harvest include their preference to live near urban areas, and they typically fly extremely low, usually less than 10 feet off the ground.
"And everybody knows that shooting at a low dove is the No. 1 no-no in dove hunting," Baker said.