Dove Opener, Numbers, Lead


Mar 11, 2001
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DOVE OPENER, NUMBERS, LEAD -- ONS-Matthews column -- 02aug06

Applying string theory to dove population data

By JIM MATTHEWS Outdoor News Service

The mourning dove population is stable.

Or declining.

Or increasing.

I happen believe all three things are true because people I trust told me they were true with elaborate explanations and solid data. So I've decided that getting a handle on dove population dynamics is like understanding string theory, global warming, or women. I'm sure there's an explanation and a big picture in each case, but I'm not sure I'll ever understand or see it. That doesn't mean these things aren't real and don't have an impact on our lives. It's sort of like believing that Darwin and Jesus were both right. Those two things don't necessarily conflict in my vast (and mostly empty) mind. Let someone else reconcile differences and work out the details.

In the meantime, I'm just happy no one believes doves are extinct because that might mess up the opener.

Every year about this time I speak with Department of Fish and Game biologists, federal scientists, and a bunch of guys like us -- just hunters -- to get their impressions on how the dove population is doing this season.

David Dolton, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientist in Colorado, compiles all the data collected by hundreds and hundreds of biologists in all 50 states each year to produce the annual "Dove Population Status" document published by his agency. This is really a very complex and interesting bit of science because counts are conducted year after year along the same routes, mostly by the same people, and long-term trends emerge from what seem to be wildly fluctuating numbers from year to year.

In California, dove numbers are down a statistically insignificant 6.9 percent from last year, according to the call count survey, and an even smaller amount (.3 percent) over the last 10 years. Throughout the Western states, the dove population is up .2 percent over the last 10 years, but Nevada's surveys say that state's dove population is up 217 percent over last year. (Does anyone hunt doves in Nevada? I'm pretty sure I've stood around a field near Yuma that had more dove hunters than the whole state of Nevada.)

Mildly confused, as usual, Dolton e-mailed me a graph that shows our dove population is stable and has been for the past 10 years. I felt better.

Rocky Thompson, a DFG biologist in the southern Sierra Nevada, does one of the call count surveys used by Dolton for his work. Since most of the routes rarely turn up more than 10 or 11 birds heard, it's hard for an individual biologist to get too excited about hearing two more birds than he did last year. But Thompson also counts doves, lots of doves, when he does his quail and chukar brood counts around water sources in the Sierra and desert mountain ranges near Red Mountain each summer. In these counts he tallies up how many birds he sees instead of how many he hears.

Thompson told me his dove count this year at 115 birds was his worst in the last five years. He counted 198 last year, 315 in 2004, a whopping 551 in 2003, and 206 in 2002. On those counts alone, our dove numbers are down 42 percent from last year and they are 1/5th what they were in 2003.

While I don't do counts as thorough as Thompson or have the data set available to Dolton, I've seen roughly 10 times more dove this year compared to last year in places I hunt -- at the Tejon Ranch and around a couple of guzzlers in the west Mojave. A hunting chum on the Central Coast said doves by his ranch house have reared three pairs of young so far this year and while they only managed one nesting last season. He said there were doves everywhere this year.

So who do you believe?

Dolton says, "To me, the one-year change isn't worth much."

Rocky Thompson says, "My dove counts were the lowest in five years."

I'm thinking we're going to have the best season we've had in a few years based on discussions with guys in the field and what I've seen so far.

Remember to apply string theory.

OK, forget about string theory. Know this: There will be about 65,000 dove hunters in California this year. We will hunt an average of three days each, shooting a total of 15 2/3rds dove per season. Those numbers have been about the same for the past few years, so there's not much reason to believe things will change. Thankfully, dove are one of the most common and populous birds in North America. That translates into: "There are always a bunch of them."

LEAD POISONING IN DOVES: There's a good chance we'll kill a significant number of doves after the season is over. We'll kill them indirectly with lead poisoning caused when the birds pick up our spent No. 7 1/2 and 8 pellets while feeding in and around fields we've hunted. Heavily hunted areas where birds feed have the potential to kill a significant number of doves because of the volume of shot available to the birds.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and many state game agencies have been doing in-depth research on how much lead poisoning of doves is taking place and how susceptible doves are to lead poisoning caused by shot. The news is not good. In a recent study published this year, the authors suggested that state and federal wildlife managers form a coalition to develop "a national strategic plan aimed at implementing a nontoxic shot regulation for mourning dove hunting that includes a deliberate communication process to engage and educate all stakeholders about the biological significance of the issue."

Unlike with the condor biologists who have never contacted the hunting community asking for help to save the big vultures, dove biologists -- most of them hunters -- know that the news must go right to hunters so we can do the right thing.

David Dolton, who's an avid hunter like many of the other biologists who've been working on these studies, is blunt. "It's pretty clear lead is doing a lot of bad things," he said. Hunters need to know this. Even if lead poisoning is only killing two or three percent more birds than we harvest each year, that is a significant number when hunters already bag 20 million doves a year nationally. What if lead poisoning is killing four or five million additional doves each year? How about quail and chukar? How many of those are we losing to lead poisoning?

Hunters have always been the leaders in conservation, and it's time we stepped to the plate on this issue. State and national hunting and shooting publications have shied away from the lead-condor issue as though it didn't exist, and too many hunters still don't understand this issue. Are state game agencies and hunting publications going to face the lead-dove issue the same way? We need to step to the plate. Good steel dove loads are available now. I'm going to see if Turner's Outdoorsman can order me a case. Maybe you'll want to ask if you can get some, too.

ADVICE ON HOW TO HIT DOVES: With opening day of dove season is just 30 days away, that leaves just four weekends for me to figure out why it takes between three and four boxes of shotgun shells for me to bag a limit each opening day. It's a perplexing question that for more than three decades I've tried to answer. Unsuccessfully.

Hunting buddies rarely use more than a box of 25 shells, and I have seen them only burn up 12 or 14 shells before they were sitting on the tailgate cleaning their birds while I stood there whanging away at easy crossing shots: bang, bang, expletive. Repeat. A few years ago a hunting chum left me in the field, went back to the motel to take a cool shower, sat in the air conditioning and read the morning paper, and them came back to pick me up. Gone a couple of hours, he still had to wait another 20 minutes before I shot my last bird.

Doves should be easy to hit. On opening day, they fly in more-or-less straight lines or predictable arcs at constant speed, saving the flying acrobatics for later in the season. They're classic crossing skeet field shots or high incoming targets on a sporting clays range, and even I do better than 10 broken targets out of 50 in these two games, even when you add in the harder targets.

So what is it with doves? I'm asking you. Obviously, I haven't figured it out. So if you were expecting me to answer this question with some shotgunning revelation, well, we're both out of luck. I'm definitely the wrong guy. Dove season is my time to support the ammunition companies.

With over one million dove hunters going out opening day across the nation, I wonder how much ammunition we burn up. Based on the data compiled by the states and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I think I could come up with a ballpark number if you tell e-mail me information on how many shells you use, on average, for each dove in the bag.

I'll also be happy to hear any tips any of you might have to help me hit more doves. Keep the tips short. I'm getting old and my attention span is waning. Send the info to my e-mail at


Well-known member
Jul 15, 2002
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Hey Jim's some "hot" tips for you (yep, I sent em to your email, so this is really for anyone at JHO who might have the same questions as you);

1. Go skeet shooting prior to the dove season to improve your hit/miss ratio. No different than when you go deer hunting. Get re-acquainted with that gun that's been in the closet for months, and learn about leading moving targets, your effective range, all that before you start shooting at live birds.

2. When you're missing doves, you're either not leading them enough, not following thru on your swing, or shooting at them when they are out of range. Increase your lead, follow thru and only shoot within your effective range.

3. DON'T buy those shells at wal-mart that cost $1.99 a box! The most expensive component in a shotshell is the shot itself. Hardened shot (with 3-6% antimony added) is much more expensive than soft shot. Hard and fast shot kills doves. Soft shot wounds doves. Physics is physics, no way around that. Reload yourself and use good hard shot or pay the extra bucks for good commercial ammo. This is a BIG part of the wounded animal problem. Be part of the solution and buy the good stuff. PLEASE!

4. Maybe now you have a better understanding of why so many doves die of lead poisoning....Many are caused by shooters who don't have enough good conscience to practice and get proficient on clay birds at the skeet range many times before shooting live birds. I know, it's a shame. So go out and burn a case at the range BEFORE you hit the field. PLEASE!


Well-known member
Jul 22, 2006
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Good point about 'good' ammo vs. 'cheap' ammo.

Think of the gas expense to drive to/from your dove hunt. I'm looking at probably $75 for gas for just opening day. Ammo gets really cheap!

On the other hand, a couple of years ago, late pheasant season, while hunting with Hevi-Shot we ran into hundreds of dove. After a couple of $2.25 per shell shots we decided dove shooting was not a good idea.

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