Last weekend found me at my high school reunion in Visalia, California, seated amongst a bunch of my Class of ’83 brethren who were generally quite happy to find that I’d joined the ranks of gun-totin’, wildlife-killin’ mamas. I was not a fan of guns back in the day, and my family preferred slaughtering animals we’d raised ourselves.
We were lamenting the fact that our reunion hadn’t been one week later, when I could have enjoyed a dove hunt or two while I was there. I’ve never gone dove hunting there, deep in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley, but I vividly remember quiet country mornings punctuated by the gentle call of the mourning dove. I used to call back at them with my Tonette, a little red plastic flute that’s like a recorder, only much easier to play. As an adult who hunts now, that memory translates into, “Mmmmmmm, bet there’s some good huntin’ there…”
“You should come back down!” my friend John said.
“I wish. I have so much work to do,” I said. I already knew this reunion would set me back so enough that I’d be hyperventilating within days. (I was right, but who cares – it was fun.)
“I know this great spot…” he said.
“Oh yeah?” I’ve never been one to fight Temptation very hard. I kinda dig Temptation.
“Yeah, two years ago I got my limit of 10 with 12 shots.”
I should mention that John is a competition shooter.
“And how’d that spot do last year?”
He shook his head. As I expected.
Two years ago we had an epic dove season in California. Can’t say I ever got a limit in 12 shots, but I got quite a few limits, and there were several days where we literally couldn’t reload fast enough for the next birds coming through. It was exciting and delicious. We ate so much dove that year. And we ate ‘em a dozen different ways, all awesome.
And then there was last year. Holy crap, it took me six hunts to get a single limit, and my shooting wasn’t the problem. The doves, which had been around all summer in substantial numbers, were just gone.
Compounding the shortage of doves was the weird weather. The rain had kept coming hard that spring, even into early summer, and the harvest of most seed crops – including the delicious and holy dove attractant safflower – had been delayed. The previous year, the safflower field I’d hunted had been plowed, providing attractive open territory for the nervous little birds. This time around, though, it had been cut, but not plowed, making those fields a scarier place for the doves.
The hunting was so bad that I resorted to something really goofy: If I spotted a few doves flitting into the middle of that big old field, I would get up and walk very quietly through the 6-inch-high safflower stalks to where I thought they’d be. I could often get within 20 yards, at which point their heads would pop up and they’d get that “Oh shit!” look on their faces, and they’d flush.
Most of the time I shot well enough to drop at least one, and somehow I managed to find all that I dropped, despite how well they blended in with the soil, and the fact that I wouldn’t regain sight of them until they were right in front of me. Pretty sure I got about half of my birds that way last year.
So now, people like John and me are asking ourselves: What’s it gonna be this year?
And I have a prediction: The doves are going to be really dumb.
I know that sounds insensitive, and shame on me, because I actually do have a tremendous amount of respect for wild animals, and like most of them better than I like most people. However, there is a basis for my statement.
For the past three summers, I have trapped and banded mourning doves in my front yard in cooperation with (and under the license of) the California Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Geological Service. For the past three summers I have seen distinctly different behaviors.
My first summer, the banding was epic. I trapped one bird three times (obviously he was very traumatized by the experience), and one day I trapped three birds 15 minutes apart – they just couldn’t wait until I left the front yard so they could come down off the roof and dive into that trap. That year, the dove season was epic.
Last summer, the banding wasn’t as good, though get this: I trapped the bird that I’d trapped three times the summer before, and three days after I trapped him, he was trapped by another bander 500 miles away in Palm Springs. That’s how doves roll.
But I digress. During the last week of banding season (which ends 10 days before dove hunting season starts) my trapping was really anemic. It seemed like the doves had all just left. And lo and behold, we had a crappy season.
This summer was again very different. The first thing I noticed was that the doves would be here in droves one day, then utterly absent for a week.
And while I didn’t re-trap any birds this year, I generally found the doves in my neighborhood to be entirely too trusting. I would pass within five feet of them on morning runs and they wouldn’t flush. And in my own front yard, I could pull into the driveway, unload groceries and walk into my house and the doves wouldn’t move.
That’s dumb. Seriously, I can’t believe they weren’t all eaten by the neighborhood cats.
So what does this mean for this dove season?
I have no clue. But I’ll start finding out today.
Holly A. Heyser is a hunter, forager, writer, photographer and college journalism lecturer who lives in Sacramento, California. You can see more of her work at hollyheyser.com.