Not many of us think of hunting small game, especially doves, during the dead of winter. It is true that while dove hunters come out en masse on Labor Day and a few weekends afterwards in September, only a few “professional” dove hunters take to the fields during the second and third seasons in the Magnolia State.

More dove hunters are waking up to the thought of hunting during the time of year you don’t have to endure 100-degree weather, biting insects and large crowds.

Couple those benefits with the fact that northern doves migrate into Mississippi during the late-season and that there are an estimated 400 million mourning doves in the fall migration, and you have a recipe for success.

Mississippi’s third dove season in the North Dove Zone is open from Jan. 1-11, 2009. The South Zone opens Dec. 7, 2008, and ends Jan. 15, 2009. The extra days in the South Zone make up for the nearly three weeks of hunting opportunity during the first and second seasons that the South Zone doesn’t get, but the North Zone does. The South Zone occupies lands that lie south of Highway 84 and east of Highway 35.


Dove biology

It is no secret that many of the doves shot during the early seasons are resident doves. A large portion of those birds are juveniles that were hatched only a few weeks or months before season began.

Doves typically have multiple broods per season. It is not uncommon for one female to raise two, three, four and even five broods each year. Oftentimes, one brood will be raised, and not long after they fledge, another batch of eggs is laid in the same nest.

I found this to be true this past fall in a nest near my Mom’s front porch. An empty nest was located in a shrub in late August, and that same nest contained two juvenile doves in early October.

According to Birds of Mississippi by William H. Turcotte and David L. Watts, the mourning dove typically lays only two eggs per setting, but the reproduction cycle from egg to fledging of young takes not much longer than three weeks. The parents care for the fledglings until they are about 25 days old.

So you can see how a female that begins egg-laying in April could conceivably raise six to 10 young prior to the first dove season.

The downside to this rapid reproduction cycle is a short lifespan.

“A 2-year-old dove is what I would call a senior citizen,” said Scott Baker, MDWFP’s migratory bird program leader,

Unlike ducks and geese, which are shown by band returns to live commonly into their teens and even 20s, most mourning doves die within their first year of life. Studies have shown that as much as 70 percent of the juvenile population doesn’t make it through the first year. This high loss rate is attributed mainly to nesting failure, disease, predators and weather.

The natural mortality rate for adult doves can be as high as 50 percent, so it takes this rapid reproductive rate to keep nature stocked with an ample supply of mourning doves each year.


Food

A mourning dove’s diet consists almost entirely of seeds. Up to 99 percent of a typical dove’s diet is composed of weed seeds and agricultural grains. Commonly eaten weed seeds are foxtails, pigweeds and wild millets such as barnyardgrass. Commonly eaten agricultural grains are wheat, corn and soybeans.

Depending on your particular location, these diets may vary, and a close examination of the crop of harvested doves will reveal what doves in your area are feeding on. In the Delta where ag crops are abundant, it is not uncommon to find corn, rice, soybean, grain sorghum and wheat seeds in a mourning dove’s crop.

Natural seeds present in dove crops in my area are teaweed, pigweed, sesbania, signalgrass and foxtail. But if there is one God-grown plant that would represent the “ice cream” of dove foods, it would be wooly croton, sometimes known as goatweed. If you can find an area loaded with goatweed, you have just located the “X” on the dove treasure map.

Wooly croton is a fairly tall plant, averaging 3 feet in height. The leaves are noticeably “fuzzy” in appearance and touch. The flower cluster produces a fairly large seed as far as natural vegetation goes, about the size of a sesame seed. The plant typically shades out the competition beneath it, and this can provide the bare ground doves love when feeding.

The many grass species across the state provide excellent food for doves. In one study, as many as 6,400 foxtail and barnyardgrass seeds were found in the stomach of one dove. Areas where large grass lots or pastures have been recently clipped are excellent areas to find doves. Also look to field edges, ditches and corners where grasses may have grown up.

In many agricultural fields, these natural dove foods have sprouted and produced seeds after the ag crop has been harvested. You can score a double-wammy in these areas with both natural and agricultural seeds. In many instances, a field prepared for the early dove seasons can also be a late-season dove magnet when natural grasses and weeds emerge and produce seed after September sunflowers are long gone.

As far as what agricultural crop seeds are the dove’s favorite, that is hard to say. In my area, it seems that the birds flock to harvested corn fields, especially during the cold weather of the third season. Most corn ground has been disked and reworked prior to the late-season, but areas of waste grain can usually be found on field ends.

One cannot rule out soybeans where the seeds have remained viable into the late-season. I have seen droves of doves flying around and landing in harvested soybean fields after a bitter cold front moves through in the late-season. No-till fields are among the best choices for late-season success.

Corn and soybeans are grown all across the state, but one ag crop that is typically confined to the clay soils of the Delta is rice. Most Delta rice fields have been tilled by the arrival of the third season, but if you can find a field that has not, or better yet, a field where stubble has been burned off, then you have found a dove magnet.

Rice seeds last much longer in the weather than either corn or soybean seeds, because the seed husk’s natural resistance to water keeps the rice seed viable long into the winter. When soybeans have turned to mush and August-harvested corn has sprouted, you can sometimes still find good rice seed on the ground in December and January.

Browntop millet is another favorite agricultural planting for doves. Browntop produces a cluster of large seeds, sometimes in the range of 1,500 pounds of seed per acre, or more. Properly managed browntop plots can provide ample food throughout all three dove seasons and for years to come.


Location

Keying in on the food sources is probably the most important factor when targeting late-season doves. While early-season hunts usually focus on water holes, shade trees and high-oil crops like sunflowers, late-season hunting tactics can be a bit different.

When those blustery cold fronts sweep down from the north, doves can’t afford to sit still. They need high-energy food sources to provide the fuel to keep their bodies warm.

You may not be able to find a dove during December until a cold front moves through, and then the birds seem to come out of the woodwork.

Finding the food source is one objective, but narrowing it down to which spot the doves prefer in a 300-acre cut cornfield is another. Dialing in on mini-flight paths in each area is crucial to your success, especially when covering a lot of ground with very few hunters.

Focus on gaps in treelines, dead snags, fencerows, wires and grit areas. No matter what season, doves must have grit in their crops for digestion. Find an area where they congregate to gather grit, and you can score big, but keep in mind that it is not legal to shoot from or across a public road.

Setting up between feeding areas and roosts is also a good tactic. When the weather is downright brutal, finding areas of thick cover where birds can seek refuge from the wind and cold can be productive.

Long-time Jackson hunter Charles Mims says that weather will affect where doves congregate.

“As it gets colder, the birds will stay in trees and bushes close to the feeding area,” he said. “These are good set-up areas.”

Sometimes it is well worth your while to observe a field for a little while before hunting, so that you can see exactly where these mini-flight paths and hotspots are located.


Gear

While one may not necessarily think of a lot of gear for hunting doves, a few changes in “accessories” can be beneficial to the lone dove hunter in the late-season.

While most dove hunters I’ve talked to say that their dove stool is their most useful gadget, I get an overwhelming vote of confidence for the use of decoys during the late season.

Most hunters agree that when hunting with a couple-dozen hunters in September, it is not difficult to keep the birds flying and to have multiple opportunities at passing birds. But switch gears to hunting a cold, windy, 200-acre ag field with a handful of hunters, and the guys agree that decoys really help.

The clip-on decoys attached to stalks, limbs, fences, or even placed on the ground seem to have a positive effect on bringing doves closer for a shot.

I know of more than one dove hunter who hangs a weighted decoy from overhead lines to get the maximum attraction from long-distance birds. Probably the most popular dove decoy with the modern hunter is the spinning-wing decoy.

Out of 101 hunters asked about the effectiveness of spinners, an astounding 70 percent said that they were very effective while 21 percent had never tried one. Most agreed that in a situation where you are hunting alone or with a small group in a large area, these spinners, coupled with stationary decoys, will help bring birds within shooting range most of the time.

Some hunters caution that while they are effective in luring doves, the spinners also have an appeal to birds of prey. Belzoni’s own outdoor writer and Presbyterian minister Richard Wiman reports that on several occasions he has been startled by the sudden presence of hawks diving down to attack the spinning-wing decoy.

Another thing to consider when hunting late-season doves is that the birds are larger than early-season locals, and are generally passing by at greater distances than those birds on small, September fields. Many hunters agree that switching from low-brass No 7.5 and 8 shot to heavy load No. 6 will give that extra “umph” needed to take down late-season birds.

Finally, don’t overlook the minute details when hunting late-season birds. There is usually less cover for the hunter to hide in, and the green, leafy vegetation is gone.

“Most birds are sharper and more wary than in first season,” says Mims. “Good camo and concealment will improve your chances.”

Take advantage of the later dove seasons in Mississippi to put a few doves on your dinner plate. What can be finer than a skewer of freshly-grilled dove breasts on the plate beside that deer backstrap, both harvested during the dead of winter in the Magnolia State?