On May 31, I conducted my annual Mourning Dove Survey for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency keeps track of the most heavily hunted bird species in America by sending out a network of volunteers who each conduct one or more annual surveys, counting all the doves they see or hear on assigned 20-mile routes that were randomly selected decades ago. This provides a fair index of dove populations over the continent. My survey route was mostly forested when I started doing it 25 years ago, but quite a few houses and a few businesses have sprung up, and long stretches of dirt roads have been paved. During the 80s, I would see from 0 to 3 cars during my entire count. Now I see from 1-3 cars at each of my 20 stops.
This year I counted 2 doves. During the first 10 or 15 years, I averaged 0 or 1, but in recent years I’ve been finding at least one every year. My count, at the periphery of the Mourning Dove breeding range, has far, far fewer doves than counts further west and south. Minnesota’s new dove hunting season hasn’t reduced the number of doves in the state, at least not as far as my data and my personal observations can show. Overall, the population of this popular game is clearly sustaining a hunt.
When the dove season was proposed in Minnesota, a lot of people opposed it for a wide range of reasons. I was, and continue to be, opposed to allowing dove hunting along the hawk migration corridor along Lake Superior during the time American Kestrels are on the move, because doves are so easily confused with them, both in flight and while perched on wires. Unlike the dove population, that of kestrels has been declining.
The other element of the Minnesota dove hunt that I oppose is allowing hunters to use lead shot. The body of data showing how harmful lead shot is for many birds continues to mushroom. “Data” is a dry and technical term to sum up the significant annual rise in number of eagles that are diagnosed with lead poisoning soon after deer season begins--it doesn’t begin to describe the agony of individual eagles losing their balance, gasping for breath, and suffering tremors, nor the investment of money and time in the exhausting work of rehab. Study after study even shows the harmful effects of lead shot on Mourning Doves themselves, picking it up as grit.
When the hunt was first proposed, I talked to many hunters who disliked the idea and would have been willing to limit it--indeed, some were willing to reject it outright. Unfortunately, a lot of anti-hunters used the public hearings as a platform to attack hunting in general, and hunters legitimately felt beleaguered. The NRA has put massive amounts of time and money into widening the divisions between hunters and non-hunters, and opposes every single proposal to limit lead shot and bullets, even in the few areas of the country where critically endangered birds such as condors remain and die every year from lead poisoning tied to hunting. This dove season was brand new, so requiring non-lead shot from the start wouldn’t have been taking away anything from hunters and would have been an excellent way for the DNR and people on both sides of the issue to show that they are responsive to public input and capable of compromise. Unfortunately, the anti-hunters made the DNR feel beleaguered, too. I found it frustrating that rabid anti-hunting took the focus from the nuanced issues involved, and that this became yet another polarizing issue in a world too divided already. Hearing the pleasing coos of these beautiful birds on my survey, I was struck by the irony of this lovely bird blending soft and muted browns with traces of black and white being used by uncompromising people no longer capable of seeing any colors except black and white, and no longer capable of speaking softly on any topic when yelling has become the standard. It’s hard for any bird to symbolize peace in a world where compromise and camaraderie have so completely vanished.