Come this fall, this may be a question asked ahead of time by an invited hunter to the host of the field. This may be a question one hunter poses to another as they step onto a dove field for the first time. In the worst case scenario, this question may be asked by incredulous hunters who have just been informed by the game warden that, yes indeed, the field is baited.
Department of Natural Resources Ranger Brandon Pierce of Effingham County would like to avoid the last example and provide suggestions and strategies for successfully and legally attracting mourning doves, as well as tips for recognizing dove fields that may be baited.
The ever-present dove is Georgia’s most popular and numerous game bird. It is hunted by more Georgians than any game species except deer, and the dove harvest is by far the highest of any species in the state. In contrast to most other game birds, the mourning dove has benefited from most modern agriculture practices. It has adapted to urbanization and remains widespread and abundant while other species, such as bobwhite quail, have decreased significantly or have required intensive management to maintain local populations.
Although the mourning dove is a common game bird on Georgia’s farms, it is also considered a migratory bird. Federal and state laws prohibit hunting migratory game birds over baited areas. Ranger Pierce said what constitutes baiting for mourning doves occasionally has been a source of confusion for hunters, farmers and land managers.
The key to hunting doves legally in Georgia is understanding the differences between “baiting” and “normal agricultural operation.”
“Baiting” is the practice of direct or indirect placing, exposing, depositing, distributing, or scattering of salt, corn, wheat, or any other grain or feed that could serve as a lure or attraction for doves to, on, or over any areas where hunters are attempting to take them. Any baited area remains baited for 10 days following the complete removal of any attractant that constitutes bait. Dove hunting over or near a baited area at any time within 10 days after the bait is completely removed is still a violation.
Because doves have neither strong beaks nor feet developed for scratching, they must feed primarily on small grains and other seeds lying free on the ground. Therefore, open grain fields are preferred over areas with thick ground cover. This characteristic of doves makes them very susceptible to baiting.
A “normal” practice or operation is one conducted in accordance with official recommendations of State Extension specialists of the Cooperative Extension Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In Georgia, these are the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service, extension agronomists; these are not the county extension agents. There are several of these specialists, each one dealing with specific crops or agricultural practices such as grains, soybeans, peanuts, soil erosion, etc.
Hunting doves over manipulated fields that were planted in the spring or early summer is a legal activity and by far the most common situation in Georgia, said Ranger Pierce. For early season shooting, browntop millet has long been the preferred crop, since it is a favorite dove food and matures early with minimum attention. Other commonly planted grain crops for dove fields are: proso millet, sunflower, corn, grain sorghum and wheat that was planted the previous fall.
These dove fields must be well planned if they are to attract large numbers of doves and the crops should mature 10-14 days before the desired period for shooting. Once grown, these grains can be manipulated by mowing, shredding, disking, rolling, chopping, trampling, flattening, burning, “hogging” or herbiciding to make the seed more available to the dove.
Two things that should never be done to these prospective dove fields is; 1) harvest the grain or seed and redistribute them on the field at a later time, or 2) add seed to what was already grown on the field. This second practice is commonly known as “sweetening” the field. Either of these practices can cause an otherwise legal field to become a baited field, making it illegal to hunt doves over.
Ranger Pierce said hunting doves over fields planted in late summer or fall is also legal, provided that the field has been planted as part of a normal agricultural operation. Normal agricultural operation implies a planting that is conducted in accordance with the official recommendations of the UGA Cooperative Extension Service.
Aerial or top sowing of small grains without covering the seed is not a recommended practice by the UGA Cooperative Extension Service. Dove hunting over a field planted by top sowing is illegal, Ranger Pierce warned. Also, normal planting operations do not involve placement of grains in piles or other concentrations. Piles of small grains, or small grains that have been broadcast on top of the ground, are possible warning signs of a baited field that hunters should look for.
Another very important component of “normal agricultural practice” is planting dates. All of Effingham County lies in what is considered the coastal region of Georgia. As such, the UGA Cooperative Extension Service recommends planting dates of Oct. 1-Dec. 15 for all small grains (wheat, rye, oats and barley) and canola. Hunters may not hunt doves over or around late summer/fall planted fields if the plantings are outside of the recommended dates.
The application rate guideline for all small grains (wheat, rye, oats and barley) planted for crop or forage production is 1.5 to 2.5 bushels per acre. Also, it is not a normal agricultural operation to sow grain several times in succession. If you find yourself on a dove field where seed has been sown more than once, it may be baited.
Fields planted in crops that continually supply mature grain are most attractive to doves. Planting multiple crops with varying planting dates well ahead of dove season will ensure a supply of seed prior to and throughout dove hunting season. Start manipulation of crops as they mature and continue throughout the summer and the dove season. For late season dove hunting, leave portions of crops standing until late fall and winter.
These standing crops will also provide places for hunter concealment during the early dove season.
Ranger Pierce added that cracked corn, rock salt, scratch feed and wild bird seed are not part of a normal agricultural practice and may indicate to the hunter that a field is baited. Small seeds or grains that are broadcast over grass or pasture land is not part of a normal agricultural practice and should warn hunters that the field may be baited. Also, the hunter should make sure that the seed that is visible matches the field conditions. For example, on a millet field there should be millet seed present. If the hunter finds a row of shelled corn or sunflower seeds spread about, that may indicate a baited field.
Whenever a hunter experiences doubt as to the legality of a field, he or she should unload their shotgun and leave. Hunters, landowners, hosts, and land managers should always call their Wildlife Resources Division regional office or local Conservation Ranger for any questions regarding field preparation efforts.
Dove season in Georgia opens statewide on Saturday and runs through Sept. 19. The second season begins on Oct. 9 and stays in until Oct. 17.
The third and longest season runs from Nov. 25-Jan. 8, 2011. Shooting hours are noon until sunset on opening day of the September season, and one-half hour before sunrise to sunset every day thereafter. The daily limit is 15.
Dove hunters must have on his/her person a valid Georgia hunting license and a valid Migratory Bird Harvest Information Program (HIP) permit.
The HIP permit is free and can be obtained from any license dealer by completing a migratory bird hunter questionnaire. Honorary license holders are exempt from the HIP permit requirement. Any autoloading shotgun or other repeating shotgun must be plugged to hold no more than three shotshells while hunting doves.
More information on legal dove hunting in Georgia can be found at www.gohuntgeorgia.com.