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Dove hunting opener is largest participatory event in the world


On September 1 each year approximately 3/4-million hunters take to the field across the nation when dove hunting season opens. The sound of shotguns popping starts at one-half hour before sunrise on the east coast and rolls across the county like thunder as dawn breaks. There is no shared activity, except perhaps for Sunday church services, that brings so many people out of their homes to do the same thing at the same time.

For hunters, it is like church. Dove opener is our Christmas morning because it signals the beginning of fall hunting seasons, a time when we can get away from the hustle and bustle of jobs and other worldly activities and participate in an historic process that shaped our species. For at least this one day of the year, there is a huge community that celebrates its hunter-gather roots, coming together with family and like-minded souls to collect some natural protein -- honest food. No hormones, no plastic wrap, no insulation between a dead bird in your hands and that same bird on the barbecue.

This year’s opener dawn, I will be standing somewhere where doves will be flying. I will be there with my family and dozens, if not hundreds, of other hunters welcoming the arrival of this season, and our surviving hunting heritage. It has become a ritual for me to close my eyes as the first shots signal the arrival of shooting time, and think about how many people across the nation are hunting doves, right now. In my mind I see people in their natural element, and I hear freedom.

I don’t think too much about the people who would do away with hunting and end gun ownership on opening day. There are just too many other things going on to not brush that out of my mind quickly. There will be lots of other days to worry about the future of hunting, but opening day we rejoice and jump to our feet off of stools, lawn chairs, and dove buckets. It is like church. This is my religious freedom.

Calculations on the number of shots taken on opening day have ranged from 15 to 50 million, probably more based on the shooting ability of the person making the estimation than any scientific data. I have said it was more like 100 million shotgun shells in the past, and now that the daily limit is 15 and not 10, so my number may be a bit more accurate number. Anyone who has seen me shoot will understand.

Dove numbers are staggering. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) estimates there will be about 270 million doves in the country at the beginning of hunting season. From that population, hunters will shoot around 13 million doves over the course of the two split seasons, or about five percent of the total population. Overall numbers of doves have remained stable or they are increasing, with numbers up in the central part of the county.

Because doves are a migratory bird, the USFWS sets the regulatory framework and the states set the seasons within that framework. The earliest date the feds allow the season to open is Sept. 1, and every state with a season (40 out of 50) opens on that date. Since 2014, the feds have used a complex set of data that combines spring breeding bird surveys with harvest data to come up with total population estimates and population trends. The harvest data is key in determining long-term trends in numbers because the harvest data goes back for many decades. But now the feds, in cooperation with the states, band tens of thousands of doves each year and can estimate what percent of the population is harvested by hunters from those banded birds. The agencies also collect feathers from harvested birds to determine the percent of young in the population to measure reproductive success each year.

This program, used for a many years for ducks, has been phased in for doves, and since 2014, the feds now have an accurate measures of the total dove population and can chart even small changes in the population trends. What has become clear is that hunters have no impact on overall dove numbers at the current population levels. But should numbers drop below certain thresholds, the USFWS has built in automatic triggering systems that will reduce bag limits, or even close the season until numbers recover.

In California, this year’s dove season will run from Sept. 1 through Sept. 15. The second half of the season will be Nov. 11 through Dec. 25. The limit is again 15 doves per day, with no more than 10 whitewings in the daily bag. The possession limit is three daily bag limits (a total of 45 doves), but you may only possess that many after the third day of the season. Get it? You can have 15 the first day, 30 at the end of the second day, and then no more than 45 after that. No hunter may shoot more than 15 birds per day under any circumstances. You may not help your hunting buddy fill his limit. If you have hunting licenses for multiple states or Indian reservations, you can still only shoot 15 birds per day.

I’m emphasizing that point! It’s 15 per day. Not 15 in the morning, and then another 15 in the evening – even if you ate all of the morning birds for lunch. It’s 15 per day. Period.

Don’t be that guy who breaks those rules.

Next week: We will have a comprehensive dove hunting forecast with news on bird numbers for popular hunting spots from around the region. My Western Birds 2017 Dove Hunting Guide will be up on my website ( on the Western Birds page no later than Aug. 28. Last year’s is still there for those of you who want to learn the public spots and do a little pre-planning.


[Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at or by phone at 909-887-3444.]

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