Finding and hunting mourning dove habitat this fall
While many people associate the mourning dove with quiet suburban neighborhoods, perhaps perched on a utility line or visiting a backyard birdbath, dove hunting is a very popular pursuit for many across the country. But if you haven’t gone before, how would you know where to go? Surely, you can’t hunt in someone’s suburban backyard, right? If you fit into that bucket of understanding, here are some tips for identifying mourning dove habitat in different regions, so maybe you can try your hand at it this season.
Mourning dove habitat
The mourning dove, not to be confused with the Eurasian collared dove, is a fairly common bird across much of North America. While it migrates south in the fall, it can occur across the entire width and breadth of the country during the summer. As you can imagine based on that huge geographical area, this species can use many different habitat types, including forested areas, croplands/farms, grasslands, deserts, and suburban/urban environments. This makes it tough to nail down for beginners – where do you possibly start to look for dove habitat when it can occur everywhere?
Before we answer that, it’s important to note that it is possible to hunt mourning doves on public land. State wildlife agencies manage their lands in different ways, but several maintain “dove fields”—essentially food plots specifically planted for doves and/or other upland game animals. Many people do hunt these public lands, which can create a lot of competition. But significantly more people pursue doves on private land where there are agricultural fields or food plots planted strictly for doves. With that in mind, let’s discuss some of the best places to find mourning doves in a few different regions. But first, let’s focus on some key habitat features you should look for no matter where you hunt doves.
Key mourning dove habitat features
No matter where you decide to hunt doves this fall, there are a few habitat features that can really increase your odds of success. If you can find all of the following features in the region you hunt, you should at least be able to see some birds. Whether you can actually connect with them depends on your wing shooting abilities.
- Food. Obviously, food is a necessity, but especially so during the fall migration period. Small seeded agricultural crops, such as sunflower, sorghum, corn, wheat, and oat, are all food sources for doves, and probably offer your best chance at finding them. But don’t overlook fallow or recently disturbed fields. The early successional plant communities in these areas often allow ragweed, pigweed, pokeweed, foxtail, and barnyard grasses to flourish, and these species offer a lot of dove food as well.
- Water Sources. Mourning doves need water throughout the day to stay hydrated and help them digest the tough-coated seeds in their diet. Look for water sources with little surrounding vegetation and a gentle slope – large puddles or ruts along a gravel or farm field road work well because they also offer grit (e.g., small rocks, sand, etc.) to aid digestion. Where natural water is sparse, stock tanks work well too.
- Roosting Cover. Doves seem to be attracted to areas with a diversity of structure types (e.g., mature trees adjacent to young forest, adjacent to open ground). Mourning doves often use snags (dead trees) as perches during the day, so anytime you can find a snag along a field edge, it’s likely that doves will use it for a daytime roost. Overnight, they may roost in conifer trees for better protection/cover, so if you find a grove of conifers within a couple hundred yards of a good field, keep an eye on it.
- Open Ground. Because doves need grit to help their gizzards digest food and their food sources are often on the ground, they spend a fair amount of time there but they are skittish. Since predators can hide behind tall vegetation and they can’t navigate it well on foot anyway, they often avoid it. Look for areas with very short-cropped or mowed vegetation or lightly-disturbed soils to really attract the birds.
Now let’s cover some of the different regional habitats where you can expect to find mourning doves.
Midwest and northeast
While there are certainly regional differences between the Midwest and Northeast U.S., dove habitats are largely the same. In these states, you can’t beat open woodlands (primarily deciduous forests) and farmlands planted with grains when it comes to dove hunting habitat. Like grouse, habitat edges are important for doves as well. Smaller farm fields with forested cover surrounding them are sure to attract a few doves in the fall. They will key in on smaller-seeded crops or early successional weed species in the fields and find shelter in the surrounding trees. While dove hunting, focus your efforts on outside corners of the forest (particularly if there is a dead oak or maple at the outside corner), which will funnel doves right past your location before they disperse into the field to feed. Alternatively, set up at a wooded pinch point between two fields, so doves will be funneled into a smaller area as they fly through the fields.
Mourning dove habitat in southern states can closely resemble that of the Midwest and Northeast, but there are some other differences. Yes, you can and probably should still hunt the edges of farm fields with some surrounding tree cover. But those fields might be rice or millet fields instead of corn or sunflowers. Water generally isn’t a limiting factor across the south, so it becomes slightly less important as far as hunting attraction goes. Focus on the habitat edges and open ground to find doves.
In drier, desert areas, you can still do well hunting doves. They follow many of the same rules mentioned above, just at a different scale. For instance, doves will often use tree or brush-lined washes for cover as they move between irrigated crop fields for feeding or to roosting areas. Setting up along one of these wooded corridors can help you see more birds. Cattle/stock tanks or canals can work very well to attract doves (rather than natural ponds or puddles in the Northeast), simply because doves need water and they will often flock to any available source. In fact, if you can find a stock tank adjacent to a good sunflower field, you’re in for a busy evening of dove hunting.
To reiterate, the exact mourning dove habitat you hunt will be different depending on where you are in the country—how could it not be? But you can use the same basic habitat features mentioned above to identify whether you have a good chance of seeing some birds or just sitting on a bucket doing some nature watching.
Ryan Lisson is a biologist and regular content contributor to several outdoor manufacturers, hunting shows, publications, and blogs. He is an avid small game, turkey, and whitetail hunter from northern Minnesota and loves managing habitat almost as much as hunting. Ryan is also passionate about helping other adults experience the outdoors for their first time, which spurred him to launch Zero to Hunt, a website devoted to mentoring new hunters.