Julie Zickefoose: Nature Artist & Writer
Mourning Dove Hunt
It's their abundance, in part, that gets mourning doves on the wrong end of a gun in many states. They're the only "game" bird to nest in all 48 contiguous states. They're members of a family, the Columbidae, that, being outside the taxonomic pale of songbirds, finds itself amongst the hunted. The language of lobbyists on both sides of the dove hunting question is a semantic minefield. "Don't shoot them! They're songbirds!" the anti-hunting faction cries. However fervently they protest, doves aren't passerines, or songbirds. Yes, they have a mellow song, but the structure of their feet, the number of their tail feathers (14 rather than 12), and certain aspects of their spermatozoa put them in a more primitive order. Woodpeckers and whip-poor-wills aren't songbirds, either, but nobody's shooting at them.
So what is it that makes us call the mourning dove a game bird? Well, they're edible, if you can get enough of them. They're brown; they look like a game bird. (I've always wondered if we would think about shooting them if they were blue, or bright red). And, most importantly, they're fast – from 30 up to 55 mph in timed flights. They're hard to hit, and, by extrapolation, they must be fun to try to hit.
If I sound like someone who doesn't hunt, well, I am. In fact, I once was asked by the League of Women Voters to speak on a local cable TV channel about why I thought it would be a bad idea to reinstate mourning dove hunting in Ohio. It had been banned in 1917, voted back in 1975-6, then banned again until 1995 ... it seems the Ohio populace at large had a certain amount of ambivalence about the practice, as well. Now, in 1998, there was a ballot issue, asking voters whether the birds should be hunted once again. And I was thinking the issue through, trying to come up with a good argument to support my gut feeling about shooting doves.
This was an unexpectedly educational experience. First, I had to examine why I object to dove hunting. I knew the populations have been proven to sustain their numbers in spite of hunting. An estimate made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the early ‘90's placed the harvest at 70 million yearly – of a population of perhaps 475 million nationwide. They're hunted in most states, and they're still abundant. But for parts of the West, where slight declines are being registered, the birds' reproductive strategies more than keep up with the harvest. When I really thought about it, I decided that I had two defensible concerns: the incidental kill of other species that might be mistaken for mourning doves, and the question of whether or not mourning doves were being consumed by the hunters who shot, or shot at, them.
Examining the ballot arguments, for and against continuing the doves' protected status, I learned some things I didn't know about mourning doves. From my work preparing museum specimens, I knew that a mourning dove is 12" long, and six of those 12 inches are made up of tail feathers. An average adult weighs 4.5 oz. Since the dove's drumstick is less than an inch long, the breast meat is all that's used. Each breast fillet is about as long as my thumb, and weighs one ounce or less before cooking. These already cracker-sized hors d'oeuvres would lose weight in the process.
I stared at the pro-hunting ballot issue. It stated: "One dove equals ten large shrimp, one chicken leg, two chicken wings, 2 1/2 wieners, three sausage patties or one bratwurst." Wow, I thought. That's a meaty bird. Since chicken parts vary a lot in size, and I didn't know how big those sausage patties or bratwursts were, I decided to go weigh a wiener. I dug one out of the hydrator. Fifty-six grams, or 1.8 oz. Two and half wieners weighed 4.66 oz. Hmm. That's right about as much as a whole dove weighs. A mourning dove breast weighs 2 oz., or about half a wiener's worth of meat. As far as I could tell, the ballot literature overstated the dove's meatiness by 233%. Unless, I concluded, you were to eat the whole dove, wings, feet, tail, feathers and all.
A few days later, armed with my wiener weighing data, I sat, sweating in a gray pinstripe pantsuit, notes in hand, under blinding television lights. The cameraperson asked me to look straight into the lights and relax as I made my case. Right. I took some comfort in the fact that the opposition speaker had actual rivulets of sweat running down his face. I made my points, one by one, starting with Incidental Kill. I stated that, although I study birds for a living, I misidentify flying mourning doves on a nearly daily basis. At 50 mph or more, it takes a second, and sometimes third, look through my binoculars to identify them. The shoot takes place as hawks, falcons, blue jays, robins, and flickers are all migrating. If I can't tell right off whether I'm looking at a kestrel or a mourning dove, what about a hunter without optics?
I moved on to the Meatiness Factor, citing a recipe in The Joy of Cooking that calls for four to eight birds to serve a single person. A shooter would have to down two dozen birds to feed a family of four. I suggested that, given the bird's demonstrably small food value and famously swift flight, mourning dove hunting might have more to do with shooting than eating.
On to the Useful Bird argument. Mourning doves eat weed seeds and waste grain in cultivated fields, competing with rodents for these food sources. One dove's stomach was found to contain 7,500 yellow wood sorrel seeds, and another had 6,400 foxtail grass seeds. They're beneficial, or at the very least harmless, to agriculture. I wound up my talk, encouraging Ohio voters to restore the protected status mourning doves had enjoyed for all but two of the last 80 years.
My opponent spoke next. I learned that people who opposed dove hunting were members of the organized animal-rights movement, which opposes using animals for farming, medical research, even fishing, circuses, and zoos! Oh. I'd thought I was just a birdwatcher. Worse, he said, we were vegetarians, determined to take meat from all American tables. I couldn't suppress a small snort, as I thought of myself extracting, then weighing a wiener from my own refrigerator. In certain seasons, there might have been venison, a gift from hunter friends, in that same refrigerator. Ah, well. I'd done my best. We'd see what happened when the issue hit the polls.
We lost. By "we," I mean the mourning doves, and those of us who enjoy watching and feeding them. There's now a season on mourning doves in Ohio, as there is across most of the rest of the country. I watch the smooth brown birds moving across the lawn under my feeders, filling their crops with millet, sunflower, and corn. It's an odd feeling to know that, alone among the 20-odd species at my feeder, mourning doves may find themselves under fire just the next field over. If any of them do find themselves topping a cracker, I guess I'll have done my part to make sure they taste good.