In a year filled with COVID-19 pandemic uncertainty, next Tuesday morning promises to be the proverbial eye of calm in the middle of a hurricane.
That day, of course, is the September 1 dove season opener across much of Texas, an annual occurrence that is nothing short of a hunter’s holy day in normal years as old friends gather, hunting dogs get their first action of the fall, and an off-season of rust gets knocked off of long dormant wingshooting skills.
And that’s in a typical year, mind you, a date that is so important that it is often the first one marked off on a new calendar and one that has even been known to scramble wedding date plans, a birthday party, or some sort of other "can’t miss" family gathering.
Since 2020 is anything but normal thanks to the unwelcome coronavirus surge, next week’s dove season opener will likely mean even more to the more than 300,000 Texans who will go afield to chase the flighty birds that bring about as many as 1.2 million hunter days each fall.
And as those hunting days happen, there should be plenty of shooting opportunity in a season that gets two thumbs up from Owen Fitzsimmons, the webless migratory bird program leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
"How is the season shaping up? Honestly, I’m even more positive now about season prospects than I was a month ago, and I was pretty high on those prospects even then," said Fitzsimmons this week as he took a break from video-conferencing with other dove biologists during a Central Management Unit meeting.
"I think it’s going to be a promising season and the birds are acting pretty normal," he added. "Last year, the birds didn’t really group up until September, but this year, they’re doing what they usually do and starting to group up in August. Based on the habitat I’ve seen and the reports I’ve been getting, I’d say we’re looking at an A- kind of season across Texas."
While Fitzsimmons doesn’t have the information in hand that he usually does at this time of the year — TPWD was forced to cancel annual dove survey work in May and June because of the pandemic — he is still confident after spring rainfall led to prime nesting conditions in late spring and early summer.
And the other reason for the biologist’s optimism is due to the ongoing abundance of doves across Texas, something that hard data from the 2019 season points to.
"There were about 183 million mourning doves in the U.S. prior to last season," said Fitzsimmons. "That predicted abundance — which is what was used to set regulations for this year — found an estimate of about 120 to 125 million mourning doves in the Central Management Unit that Texas falls into."
In other words, there are plenty of mourning doves across Texas.
"Our long term average is about 25 million breeding birds, and that number goes up with the fall migration," said Fitzsimmons. "Our best guess for what that number swells to during the fall is about 50 million mourning doves."
How many mourning doves are harvested in Texas each year? Out of the seven million doves harvested in Texas last fall, about 4.5 million or so of those birds were mourning doves.
If the news about mourning doves is good, as it typically is, it might be even better for white-winged doves, a species that traditionally made itself at home in the Rio Grande Valley and deep South Texas.
But in recent years, whitewings have been expanding north across Texas with big populations now being found around San Antonio, Austin, Waco, DFW and out in the Rolling Plains towards Abilene and Wichita Falls. And for whatever it’s worth, they are increasing in Grayson County too — I actually saw a whitewing flying down my street in Denison the other day, something I’ve never seen before.
"Our latest estimate in Texas is about 15 million whitewings," said Fitzsimmons. "And I think it is probably a little up from that too. They continue to grow their population numbers and expand their range; it’s almost like we can’t survey them fast enough."
How many whitewings get harvested in Texas each year? Fitzsimmons said that the HIP survey (Harvest Information Program) puts the number at about 1.5 million, although he notes that TPWD’s own small game survey puts the number closer to 2 million. Either way, that’s as much as 85- to 90-percent of the white-winged dove harvest across the nation.
While the biggest numbers of that whitewing harvest come from South Texas, increasing numbers are being taken each year closer to the Red River too. In fact, the biologist notes that as many as 150,000 were taken last fall in the Rolling Plains and perhaps as many as 200,000 were bagged in North Texas.
While the white-tipped dove makes up a small portion of the annual dove harvest figures in the southern reaches of the state (two white-tips are allowed per day in the Texas daily bag limit of 15 doves), another bird likely to show up in a North Texas hunter’s game vest is the Eurasian collared dove. And that’s even though the invasive bird doesn’t actually count against the state’s daily bag limit and can be taken in unlimited fashion.
"Our harvest estimate from last year was about 300,000 out of a loosely estimated population of about 5 million statewide," Fitzsimmons said of the invasive species.
Add all of this number crunching up, and the conclusion that a Lone Star State wingshooter is likely to come to on the eve of the 2020 Texas dove season is that there’s plenty of incentive to go afield this fall.