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Most hunters concentrate on areas where the doves feed. Their diet is almost exclusively seeds. Weed and grass seeds are supplemented by waste grain from farming operations. Having feet that are designed for perching, not scratching, they look for their food on standing plants or on the surface of the soil. While some seeds may seem to be preferred at a given time, the dove is primarily a bird that takes advantage of the opportunity of the present day, and they will change their feeding location frequently.
Doves typically need to have two visits to water daily. During wet periods, rain puddles and heavy dew may suffice, but they will go to streams or ponds for water. The best watering locations will include stretches of mud flats or sandbars where the birds can sit in the open to get water with no ambush cover for ground-based predators.
The preferred shelter for doves is the forest canopy. The majority of the nests will be found here. However, in some locations, they may be found as ground nesters where they are vulnerable to more predators. In the natural world, doves are the prey of many animals from hawks that catch them in flight, to snakes (primarily raiders of nests), and housecats that have gone wild.
While the mourning dove is primarily a migratory species, some individuals may be less inclined to migrate from the south during the spring or to the south in the fall. Normally, they begin to gather in flocks during late summer and most of the flock departs to the south with the first cold weather. The failure to migrate south in fall creates problems during severe winters, as the birds do not have enough fat reserves to survive repeated cold days, and they can not scratch through the snow to find food.
It is the hunter’s responsibility to follow the law. Review the laws on baiting and make certain the field you are hunting has not been baited. If you have questions, call the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife first, not after the hunt.
Food plots, with small areas of seed producing grains and grasses, will attract doves. Many landowners cooperate with the Department to establish dove fields and open them to the public. For private land that is available for these hunts, contact the Department information center.
One method that works is to mow the field in strips. Leave some plants, such as sunflowers, standing while mowing grasses, grains, etc. Doves will feed in the entire area, and downed birds are much easier to find in the mowed areas.
Dove shoots typically have several hunters shooting over a small area. By shooting only the high birds, incidents will be avoided. These high flyers also offer the most challenging shots for the shooter.
Ethical hunters strive to retrieve every bird. When the birds are flying in large flocks the hunter may be able to down more than one bird at a time. A good retriever will assist the hunter in finding crippled and dead birds. It is recommended that the birds be retrieved as soon as there is an opportunity. They can then be laid in the shade to cool, plus an accurate count toward the limit can be maintained.
Most hunters report that they use only the breast of the dove. They simply split the skin on the breast, peel it back, and cut the breast out of the bird. Some hunters prefer to pick (or pluck) the feathers off the complete bird and eat its wings, legs and breasts. To remove the entrails from a picked bird, it is recommended to split their back for easy access to the small body cavity. Birds that have been picked may either be cooked whole or in halves.
Doves do not need to be cleaned in the field, as their body heat is apparently lost due to the small size of their body. However, if you prefer to pick them, it can be done during a time when doves are not flying. Cutting out the breast or removing entrails is usually done after the shooting is complete and the gun will no longer be handled. If birds are cleaned in the field it is a simple courtesy to the landowner to either bury or carry out the feathers and entrails. As with all game, carefully remove all shot before freezing or preparing your doves. To freeze them, use the same technique described in squirrel cleaning.
Most hunters recommend wrapping dove breast in bacon, doused with different marinades and broiling them. Here are some other ideas.
Recipe from Arnold Mitchell, Retired Commissioner, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Place breasts in a large baking dish. Do not crowd them. Saute onion in skillet and add remaining ingredients to the onions except for the sour cream. Mix the spiced onions and mushrooms and pour over birds in the baking dish. Cover the dish lightly and bake for 1 hour, turning breasts occasionally. Add sour cream and stir. Bake uncovered for 20 minutes. Serve over rice. (Brown rice or a mixture of white and wild rice is especially good.) Serves 6.
(Recipe suggested in “The Mourning Dove”, John Madson, Winchester Press, 1978.)
Season the doves in salt and pepper and roll them in flour. Place them in oil in a heavy roaster and bake at 400 degrees until brown. Add the onions, water and sherry. Cover and cook until tender. Baste with sherry. Add parsley to the gravy just before serving. Serves 8-12 people.