Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, June 18, 2015

2015 Mourning Dove Survey

Mourning Dove
Mourning Dove at one of my survey stops this year
Back in 1987, I started doing an annual volunteer survey for the US Fish and Wildlife Service counting Mourning Doves along a 20-mile route. Each year I started at a precise spot along a country highway in the Adolph area and ended up out in Saginaw. Year after year I did the survey on one of the most northernmost routes in the country.

In the 80s, my area had very little development, and because it was almost all forested, most years I had at most one Mourning Dove. But little by little, some stretches have been developed for houses and motor homes, and some of the forests have been lost. So the bird life has changed, year after year, but after so many years covering the same area, I felt a real connection to the land and birds along my survey route.

Then, in 2013, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and US Geological Survey stopped conducting the Dove Survey. I’m sure this was due to cutbacks—most people don’t even realize that the cuts brought on by the federal government’s sequestration have never been restored.

The Mourning Dove is America’s most heavily hunted game bird, so I thought cutting back on such an amazingly cost-effective program, in which unpaid volunteers do much of the work, was a terrible idea. There’s absolutely no evidence that dove populations are at all in trouble—they seem to thrive on exactly the kinds of land management practices that are dominating the landscape right now—but the way to prevent problems all along is with solid information, and the dove surveys have been a perfect way of assuring the continued success of dove populations.

Minnesota only opened a dove season at all in 2004, and up here hunters have been slow to join in. That doesn’t surprise me—the hunting culture of many Minnesota hunters is steeped in tradition and conservation, and throughout the lifetimes of every living Minnesota hunter Mourning Doves were considered more of a backyard songbird than a legitimate game species. We’re at the far northern reaches of their range east of the prairie regions—that’s why my particular survey route has normally had so few doves compared to most routes. And that is also why it’s so important to maintain surveys to keep track of dove numbers here in the forested parts of Minnesota, where their population is so much smaller than elsewhere in the state or in other states. It’s especially urgent now, as interest in dove hunting in the state is growing, so we can keep track of its effects in the specific region of the state where their numbers really may be too small to sustain a hunt.

So I was thrilled this spring when I was contacted by the coordinator of the old hunt, asking me if I’d run my route again this year, using a new protocol. They’re piloting a new survey that will only involve one-tenth of the routes formerly run, using range finders and GPS to locate the precise locations of each dove to create a more precise statistical picture of dove numbers.

I’d never used a Garmin GPS or any kind of rangefinder before, but it wasn’t hard to learn the new technology. (See? You CAN teach an old dog new tricks!) This new protocol will be tested for 3 years, so I’ll be doing the Survey in 2016 and 2017 as well.

This past weekend I headed out, as I’ve done in so many springs, to cover the exact same stops as I’ve done in the past. There’s been more development since last I was there, and I ended up with 5 doves—close to my route’s all-time record number. I heard cuckoos and snipe, warblers and vireos, Alder Flycatchers and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. I brought my dog Pip along, too. She stayed in the car for most of the stops, but poked her head out to listen to the birds and frogs singing.

Democracy and wildlife management both work only when we’re armed with accurate information. It’s so satisfying to be able to volunteer my time for an important survey that both collects valuable data and is such a pleasurable part of my annual traditions.

Mourning Dove