— Written By Matthew Strickland en Español
Mourning Dove Natural History
It’s that time again, and folks are beginning to consider what to plant in their dove hunting fields for the upcoming season. Dove season for many kicks off the hunting season, and is often a pastime that is easily enjoyed by sportsmen of all ages, with the season beginning the first Saturday in September. North Carolina also maintains year-round local populations of doves, and those are the first to breed in the spring. The resident doves may fly 12 miles to a field to feed. Doves can be attracted with food plots but it may be difficult to hold them in a given area. They select seeds that are laying on bare ground more often because doves are poor scratchers and are not very capable of uncovering buried seed.
Migratory doves over-winter in the Southeast, with the highest concentrations in North Carolina occurring in the late summer and fall. Many doves will overwinter in NC, but the fall migration usually peaks around the season opener, and is often the best time to reach bag limits since migratory flocks are moving back south for the winter. Spring migration starts around February depending on the cold weather at the time.
For folks interested in attracting and holding doves to their hunting plots and to increase the odds of getting bag limits, there are some techniques to increase the likelihood of encountering these migratory flocks passing through. These treatments are more intensive and can benefit other types of wildlife that select herbaceous plants and their seeds for forage.
For intermediate treatments ( A few years of management):
- Thin forest stands early and frequently to stimulate herbaceous growth in the understory and to maintain high quality nesting cover.
- Burn thinned forest stands frequently (every 2 to 4 years) to retain woody and herbaceous understory.
- Schedule burns in winter months to improve herbaceous seed production. Burn in late summer or early fall to expose seeds on bare ground, especially for hunting locations.
The second, and more immediate management treatments, can be done within months to a year. One approach is to plant small food plots in early spring to feed non-migratory doves during summer, then make a larger planting in mid-to late spring to attract migratory doves. Planting and managing small fields or plots to attract doves is a very successful and popular way to hunt these birds.
This can be leaving ag fields untilled following harvest and buffering field edges with cover to promote natural seed that doves will forage for food. These species include:
- Carolina Geranium
- Wild Millets
- Foxtail grasses
- Wild Peas
- Pine seeds
- Native Sunflowers
As mentioned previously, many of these herbaceous plants respond well to disturbance, like fire, or tillage. Prescribed burning should be conducted during the winter months to promote their growth.
For food plots designed for harvesting doves it can be efficient to plant crops that produce seed heads that are desirable for food. For most, it is critical to have a food source available just before and at the start of the season, so planting dates can play an important role in planning and getting the soil tested will help with food plot soil fertility.
Many of these crops work well in combination with others.
Browntop Millet: This is a quick producing plant that will reach seed maturity in about 60 days after planting and will reach about 3 ft tall. Planting dates can be from April 15 through August 15. Recommended seeding rates are 14 to 20 lbs/acre drilled and 25 to 30 lbs/acre broadcast planted ½ to 1 inch depth.
Buckwheat: The seeding rate is 30 to 50 lbs/acre; higher rates are used when broadcasting. It will produce seed between 70 to 90 days after planting. Buckwheat can be planted between April 15 through August 15. Planting depth should be ½ to 1 inch.
Cowpea: This plant will make a viny canopy about 2 to 3 feet tall. Planting calls to drill cowpeas 1 to 2 inches deep at about 75 lbs/acre. You can go higher if it is a larger seeded cultivar. Cowpea reaches maturity between 90 and 140 days after planting, so this would be one of the earlier crops to plant. Planting is recommended between April 15 and June 15.
Grain Sorghum: This plant reaches approximately 3 ft in height and produces a large seed head much like the other millets. Sorghum can be broadcast at a rate of 10 to 15 lbs/acre or drilled at a rate of 5 lbs./acre. Planting depth is 1 inch and can be planted between April 15 to June 15. Depending on the variety, it may take 60 to 125 days before the plants mature.
Proso Millet: Another large seed head producing crop. Proso millet will reach about 2 to 3 feet in height and seeds mature in 65 to 75 days after planting. When planting, this crop can be drilled at 6 lbs/acre, or broadcast at 12 lbs/acre at a depth of ¼ to ½ inches. Planting date can be April 15 through August 15.
Foxtail Millet: Another millet that produces a large seed head with many seeds. Seeding rates should be 25 lbs/acre at a depth of ¼ to ½ inch. Foxtail millet takes 80 days to produce dry seed. Planting dates range from April 15 to August 15
Sunflower: Sunflowers mature after approximately 100 days. The larger seeds produced are very desirable to doves, and have been a favorite for dove plots for many years. There are several varieties. Planting date should be between April 15 to May 15. Seed depth should be 1 to 1 ½ inches deep.
Grain Corn: A reliable staple in food plot plantings, corn produces a larger seed that is very desirable to doves that is rich in carbohydrates. Depending on the hybrid, the date of maturity may be different from the other. Recommended planting date is April 1 through August 15. Planting depth should be 1 to 2 inches deep at 15 lbs per acre for the seeding rate.
Staggering plantings of any of these crops in combination may enhance the availability of available forage for doves in your plots before the season starts, and during the season. Paying attention to the days to plant maturity will be critical in your planning and implementation.
For more information and sources:
- University of Tennessee: A Guide to Successful Wildlife Food Plots: Blending Science with Common Sense
- Mourning Dove NC State publication
- Seasons and Limits for Migratory Game Birds
- NRCS Cover Crops and Soil Health
- N.C. Cooperative Extension’s Wildlife Portal