MOURNING DOVES may weigh in at a scant four ounces apiece, but countless tons of shot pellets are expended in hunting the little feathered rockets each year. U.S. ammunition manufacturers say that more shotgun shells are used to shoot doves, in fact, than all other species of gamebirds combined. Obviously, these quarter-pounders have something going for them.

For starters, you don't need yapping dogs or a flock of cumbersome decoys to go dove hunting. Aficionados also appreciate the challenging wing-shooting, the wide availability of the quarry and the tasty morsels following a successful hunt. You don't have to get up at the crack of dawn, either, since dove hunting is usually best in the afternoon.

Although some misinformed Yankees consider doves to be songbirds and cringe at the very idea of shooting them, the dove hunt is as much a Southern tradition as moonshine and magnolias. Best of all, the season is already underway hereabouts.

A point to note: Doves aren't easy marks. They are small and fast. Shotgunners who frequently smoke 25 straight at trap or skeet often must be content with one bird per three or four shells. A so-so shooter will do well to bag a single dove with six or seven shots. But it's a heck of a lot of fun anyway, and the action can be fast and furious on a good day.

Dove hunting is one of the few sports where a crowd of hunters can be an asset -- lots of shooting keeps the birds active and flying. Doves are best hunted in corn stubble shortly after harvest, although they like soybeans and other grains as well. They seem to enjoy congregating on wires, too, so staking out a telephone or power pole -- especially in or near a cornfield -- is not a bad strategy. Needless to say, the doves are to be shot only while airborne.

Gamebirds have keen eyesight, and doves are no exception. For best results, hunters should wear camouflage clothing, including a camo hat. Bring along a folding stool to sit on, if you like, as well as a liberal supply of insect repellent for those warm, not-quite-fall days.

Last but not least, you need a shotgun, preferably in 12 or 20 gauge with an improved cylinder or modified choke. A double- barreled gun may be carried afield as is, but the law requires that repeaters be plugged to accept no more than three shells while dove hunting. Game wardens, by the way, just love to hand out citations to hunters toting unplugged shotguns. HAPPY HUNTING GROUNDS

Dove hunting is done almost exclusively on privately owned agricultural land, so you'll probably need to cultivate a few friendly farmers.

Doves and corn are nearly inseparable, so any cornfield is a potential hunting site. If you are clean and presentable and can show you know the ABCs of hunting safety, there's a better than even chance that a farmer will allow you to hunt doves on his property. Some hunters have evolved elaborate scams (bringing the wife and kids along to show you're a "family man," etc.) but, as is usually the case, a polite and reasonably articulate request can work wonders. Remember, the worst a landowner can do is say "no." If you are granted permission to hunt, it's imperative to obey the landowner's wishes regarding shooting near livestock or buildings.

In Virginia, no hunting whatever is permitted in densely populated Arlington, and heavy restrictions are in effect in all of Fairfax County. But vast areas of Fauquier, Loudoun and Prince William counties are under cultivation, offer fine hunting and are readily accessible from Washington.

In Maryland, good dove hunting can be had in Prince George's, Frederick and Montgomery counties, with the areas around Frederick and Urbana being noteworthy for exceptional crops of doves during the past several years.

Maryland's Eastern Shore also offers excellent dove hunting, ut, alas, much of the suitable land there is leased by gun clubs or professional guides, so the opportunities for free-lance hunters are, at best, limited. OPEN SEASON

MARYLAND: Dove hunting is permitted in Maryland this year from noon to sunset September 2 to October 26; and from half an hour before sunrise to sunset for the periods November 15 to November 23, and December 23 to December 28. Bag limit is 12 birds per day with 24 in possession. VIRGINIA: Dove hunting is permitted in Virginia this year from noon to half an hour before sunset September 2 to October 28; and from half an hour before sunrise to half an hour before sunset December 23 to January 4. Bag limit is 12 birds per day with 24 in possession. SHELL GAMES

You'll see plenty of so-called "dove and quail" shotshells for sale at the discount stores this time of year, and, admittedly, the stuff is pretty cheap. The problem is that this ammo contains a short count of soft, easily deformed shot loaded to relatively high velocity. That all adds up to skimpy shot patterns, heavier recoil and fewer birds in the bag. Use it if you must, but a standard trap load of number 71/2 or 8 hard antimonial shot is far superior for doves. WING STEAKS

Doves can be roasted or stewed, but I like to make what I call "wing steaks," and darned if they don't have a nice beefsteak flavor. First pluck the dove's breast, then remove it by running the blade of a sharp knife along both sides of the breast bone. The breast meat will come free as a small "butterfly," from which the skin can easily be peeled. Discarding the rest of the bird might seem wasteful, but remember that a dove's breast comprises perhaps 90 percent of the edible meat. Saut,e the dove breasts in butter (about two minutes on each side) and serve on a bed of rice moistened with the pan juices. "Some good eatin'," as they sa