Don't look now but hunting season is around the corner. In three weeks gunners will be afield once more in pursuit of the nation's most abundant game bird, the mourning dove.
It wouldn't seem right if there weren't some hopelessly complicated three-way battles raging between the forces of hunters, nonhunters and the government. Sure enough there is, this time over the plight of nesting mourning doves, and Maryland and Virginia are in the thick of it.
Two conservation organizations, Defenders of Wildlife and the Committee for Dove Protection, claim government regulations permitting dove hunting in September are unfair. The organizations testified at a public hearing this summer that doves are the only migratory game birds that are not protected while they are in their nests.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which gets into the act because mourning doves cross state lines, responded with an 80-page "negative declaration" in which it listed reasons for continuing September hunting for doves this year.
Fish and Wildlife cited figures that indicate the dove population in all sections of the nation is thriving, with a total population of 500 million birds. That figure puts mourning doves as the sixth most abundant bird in the United States, and the declaration also describes the peaceful, monogamous bird for hunting, with an estimated 49 million birds harvested annually.
That, says the report, means "more mourning doves are harvested each year than all other migratory game birds combined," Still, the report points out, the species is flourishing.
The reason? Doves have an extremely high natural mortality rate, in some cases as high as 75 per cent a year, and an extremely high recruitment rate of offspring, about 2 1/2 surviving fledglings a year per adult, the report contends.
As to the claim that doves are not protected while on their nests. Fish and Wildlife contends that nesting peaks in most places in later spring and early summer, and all but about 5.6 per cent of nesting is completed before Sept. 1.
The conservationists concede these claims, but maintain that by taking a nationwide view the government is ignoring the fact that substantial numbers of nesting doves are being hunted in Southern states, where the nesting season is longest. They believe a line should be drawn across a map of the United States, below which dove hunting would not be permitted before a later date, perhapd Oct. 1.
Where would the line fall? "Certainly Virginia would be below it, and parts of Maryland, at least, if you give the birds the benefit of the doubt," said John Grandy, executive vice president of the Defenders Of Wildlife.
Fish and Wildlife's negative declaration effectively rejects the conservationsts' arguments. Virginia and Maryland hunters will not have to cancel their plans for September dove hunting this year. But Grandy said DOW may yet file suit challenging the declaration, and who knows where that may lead?
The states set their own seasons within the federal guidelines, and this year Maryland opens first, with a Sept. 1 to Oct. 15 season and a second season, Nov. 16-Dec. 10. Virginia dates are Sept. 10-Nov. 5 and Dec. 21-Jan. 2.
Both states have afternoon-only hunting and bag limits of 12 doves per day and 24 in possession.
It's doubtful that any but the absolute best of dove hunters will have to worry about those bag limits. For most gunners, dove hunting is as much an excuse to go out and blow off a box of shells as it is a real effort to bring home game.
Doves are masters of erasive flying, and that, coupled with their speed and size leaves little to shoot at.
Nonetheless, some 3 million hunters in 33 states last year, pursued mourning doves, and the 49 million birds that were brough down yielded someting like 12 million pounds of tasty morsels of meat.
Government figures for 1973 show that 108,500 Virginia hunters bagged almost 2 1/2 million birds that year, while in Maryland 33,800 hunters brought down 371,700 doves.
Dove hunting's afternoon-hours-only law and the early season make it as laid-back a hunting experience as you'll find. As Grits Gresham points out in this month's Sports Afield, "Dove hunting is really dove shooting. The hunting part ivolves finding a field where doves are feeding . . . then and there the hunting ends. The shooting begins."
The best hunting is early in the season, when birds migrating south mingle with those that spent the summer here, and when corn and grain are in the fields to attract flocks of feeders.
Guns of anywhere from 12 to 20 gauge are used, and most hunters favor No. 7 1/2 or 8 lead shot.