For Your Consideration… Shooting Doves Out Of The Trees

September 5, 2012

Maybe I’m feeling a little pugilistic tonight.  It’s Wednesday night, after all, and I haven’t even bothered to post so much as an update since last week.  Along with that, I keep finding myself dragged into the unwelcome world of political discussion… and these days, that’s an awful ugly place to be.

So I’m gonna just lay this out there and see what I get back.

Dove season opened here on Saturday, as it did across many parts of the country.  It’s a big shindig for an awful lot of hunters… the kickoff to the fall season… a social occasion… and whatever else.  The fields were full of shotgun toting nimrods, hoping to make the best of a handful of those feathered, grey rockets.

Wingshooting doves is a challenge.  I forget the actual numbers, but the average number of shots fired for each bird killed is pretty ridiculous.  They’re simply hard to hit… and when you consider that the vast majority of hunters in the field haven’t touched a gun since waterfowl or deer seasons ended last winter, that’s no surprise.  But that’s also part of the fun of the annual hunt.  Getting back into your swing, as it were, and that elation of knocking one of these creatures out of the air… well, they’re hard feelings to explain to anyone who hasn’t done it.  And for many dove hunters, wingshooting is the name of the game.  There’s no law (that I know of) against shooting them on the ground, or out of a tree, but most folks consider the real “sport” of a dove hunt to be in hitting the birds while they’re flying.

But what if you don’t?

Here’s the deal.  All summer, I’ve had a pretty good number of doves moving across my little place here in the Hill Country.  The majority of birds have been whitewings, mixed with a few mourning doves, and a fair number of Eurasian collared doves.  The collared doves (AKA ringnecks) are considered an invasive, non-native species.  Here in Texas, there are no restrictions, no seasons, and no limits for killing them.  I’ve been shooting them out in the front yard with the pellet gun, pretty much since I moved in here.  They’re delicious birds, plentiful, and I’ve never had qualms about picking a couple for the grill or skillet.

But the others, whitewings and mourning doves… those are different.  The dove opener has been a tradition for me and some members of my family for as long as I can remember.  And I’ve almost always preferred to stand out in the field and pop them out of the air.  This year started out no differently.  I’d been watching the birds every morning, as they’d land in my pasture and pick through the weeds, as well as the caliche gravel.  I like to take Iggy for a walk most mornings, and as we’d stroll through the pasture we’d put a couple dozen birds up every day.  With this in mind, I was pretty sure the dove opener would be a blast.  I was out there before sunrise on Saturday, comfortably perched in a little brush pile with my dad’s old Ithaca Featherweight over my arm.

We waited and we waited.  A few birds did get up and move from their roosts high up on the canyon to lower roosts.  A couple crossed the field, appearing and disappearing before I could even get the gun up.  As the morning heated up, the birds seemed to stop flying altogether.  They never came down into the pasture.  I don’t know, but someone could make the argument that there’s a secret society of intelligent and literate wildlife that reads and memorizes the seasons and regulations, and then passes that knowledge to the rest of the animal kingdom.

While the birds didn’t seem to fly much, they did come down the hill and light in the trees along the edge of my pasture.  That first morning, after sitting tight for a couple of hours, I decided to go up and walk that treeline, in hopes of flushing birds into the open where I could shoot.  Unfortunately, the birds were smarter than I was and tended to flush back into the woods instead of over the pasture.  I circled my way around the pasture and finally back to the house after firing only four or five shots… mostly Hail Mary fusillades out of frustration.

With daytime temperatures over 100 all day, and no live water on my property, I knew continuing the hunt during the day was pointless.  The birds sit tight in that heat, generally close to water and/or in the shade.  I had stuff to do anyway.  About an hour before sunset, I grabbed the gun and Iggy and headed back to the pasture.  The birds that I did see flying before sunset never seemed interested in the pasture.  Most flew in over my house,  where the bird feeders hung, and followed the trees right back to their roosts up on the ridge.

I didn’t mess with the birds much on Sunday, but Monday morning dawned and I was really craving a dove dinner.  I switched guns, since I’ve never been much of a wingshot with that old Ithaca, and took Iggy and my old Savage SxS out into the pasture.  On the way out, we bumped a couple of birds out of the oaks, and I missed a couple of quick shots.  Nothing jumped from the pasture, and for an hour or so, the dog and I sat in the brush pile watching one bird after another hop along in the oaks along the edge of the clearing.  Once again, I decided to go try to jump shoot the birds, and once again, they simply flew away into the thick canopy.

Finally, I rounded a little bend and saw a group of birds perched in the dead branches of a big oak.  I was only about 30  yards away… maybe less… and I’d come out where the birds hadn’t seen me.  I took careful aim, and pounded the highest bird.  The others, of course, scattered, and I spent my second barrel on one that practically flew into me in its panic.  I missed.  Hitting a flying bird at close range with full choke is no mean feat on the best of days, and this was not the best of my days.

I sent Iggy in for his first retrieve, anxious to see what he’d do.  He had run out with me to fetch the ringnecks that I shot with the pellet gun, but I never pushed it with him.  He’s still only 9 months old, but I let him find the bird (which he did handily), and then tried to coax him to fetch it.  He picked it up, got a mouthful of feathers, and spit it out.  Damn.  This is a problem with doves, and especially with a young retriever.  I encouraged him, cajoled, and called to him.  He nosed the bird and pushed it around, but every time he took it in his mouth he spit it out.  Unfortunately, he was deep in a thicket of juniper (cedar), and I couldn’t get to him.  I just encouraged and encouraged, until he finally nosed the bird close enough for me to get to it.

Doves aren’t particularly big birds, and for a normal appetite, two or three birds are barely sufficient.  Now, after all this work, I had one bird.  Not only that, I had a dog that still wasn’t sure what to do with these feather puffs.  I pocketed the bird and continued to creep along the treeline until I saw another group of birds perched.  Again, I raised the gun, picked the most open shot, and cleanly killed a bird off the branch.

I won’t extend the story too much further, except to say I did it once again to make three birds and enough for a meal.  All three birds fell in the thick cover, and I’m afraid the dog didn’t really get the kind of education I’d hoped for.  But lessons were learned.  After that, I took the gun and the dog and went back to the house.

So here’s the thing.  Personally, I have no real problem with what I did.  In purely pragmatic terms, I killed three birds out of the trees because I wanted to eat them.  Killing them this way was definitely cleaner than wingshooting, because there’s much less margin for error.  I know this gun, and I know it shoots where I point (god forbid I ever get a chance to take this thing to a turkey shoot!).  I’m usually a pretty decent wingshot, although we all have good days and bad, but most times, I prefer to shoot my birds flying rather than sitting in a tree.  This day was different.  Even if I’d wanted to show off my skills as a wingshooter, there was no one around to see.  I could have made up stories, of course.  I could have just not said a thing to anyone.  Instead, though, I’m laying it out here for no more noble purpose than to stimulate a conversation.  What do you think?  Would you do the same?  If you feel like flaming, go ahead… but keep it civil.

What I’m really interested in is the justification of those who would “never stoop” to potting birds from the trees or off the ground?

So go for it.



11 Responses to “For Your Consideration… Shooting Doves Out Of The Trees”

  1. Jeff on September 6th, 2012 08:05

    I shoot them where I find them, and if that is in the trees, so be it… I just don’t have access to any good dove fields to hunt here, so we hunt the woods and tree lines for them. And they are too tasty to pass up. The boys also just want to hunt, and as long as they are following ALL of the game laws to the T, it is fair game for them!
    Don’t get me wrong, others can do it however they want… I had a guy this spring that wouldn’t shoot the turkey I called in because it came in quietly and not gobbling; that was his choice, and he felt strongly about it. So to each their own I say…

  2. Dennis on September 6th, 2012 08:24

    I don’t have any issues shooting a dove off of a branch. Hunting is about procuring food and, as long as it is done cleanly and legally, the method should be up to the individual. Wingshooting is more of a challenge and goes to the “sport” of hunting. It doesn’t make it any more ethical than potting a bird in a tree.

  3. J.R. Young on September 6th, 2012 10:42

    The first time I went dove hunting was on a whim. I got a call from my Dad’s elk hunting buddy seeing if I wanted to go that afternoon. “Sure why not”, I hadn’t shot a shotgun in several years but I figured I could make do.

    Two boxes of shells later I had zero doves.

    Another year passed and I got a call to go again.

    This time I was a little better, I got one dove for the two boxes of shells I ran through….and I’m not ashamed to admit that I had to stalk it and shoot it out of a tree.

    That was all several years ago and I haven’t been since….mostly because I no longer live in WA, but I have shot a lot more since and am pretty confident my numbers would be vastly improved….but I’d still have no problem taking one off the ground our out of a tree.

  4. Jean on September 6th, 2012 12:00

    It sounds like practical hunting.

    No game lost.
    2 buddies learning to work together.
    tasty bird dinner.

    What’s not to like?

    Sorry, I can’t flame you. I am a lousy wingshot and have considered groundshooting quail because it is so difficult for me to find them.
    Instead I just shoot semi-stationary rabbits with the 22mag.

  5. Neil H on September 6th, 2012 16:02

    Would you flush out a deer so you could make a “more sporting” running shot?

    I have never understood the logic behind the “only shoot on the wing”. I mean, if you like that as a personal constraint, sure, but it’s not an ethical question.

  6. Phillip on September 6th, 2012 16:11

    Dangit, you guys are all too logical and tolerant! I was spoiling for a fight last night when I wrote this. OK, not so much, but I have been sort of expecting a little flack.

    I do enjoy the challenge of wingshooting, and would prefer it for a good hunt. But when it comes time to put something on the grill and the birds aren’t flying… well, I could go without, or I could do what I intended in the first place and kill a couple of birds. Some days, it really is more about the destination than the journey.

    All things considered, it is exactly as Neil put it… if a hunter’s main responsibility is the clean,quick kill, then shooting a bird from a tree is a heck of a lot more likely to achieve that than trying to catch one zipping by at 45 mph. Of course, we all probably recognize the hazards of following that road of thought too far over the horizon.

    Thanks all, for the comments. I look forward to hearing more.

  7. Bruce Cherry on September 7th, 2012 11:39

    Back in the days of kings and dukes and aristocrats in Europe, hunting as a sport—wingshooting—was recreation limited to the wealthy. A poor peasant or laborer could not afford to miss. When immigrants came to America [not the original immigrants, but the European types who brought firearms with them] they were both practical and poor. Lead had to be imported from Europe at great expense and every shot counted. Wingshooting, as in Europe, was the sport of the landed gentry, the tidewater aristocrats.

    Which leads to my point. Hunting can be a sport, like golf or tennis, or it can be a means of procuring food. Here on the Big Island, for me, at least, it is primarily a means of procuring food. All legal shots, as long as they are humane to the animal and don’t endanger other persons or property, are ethical, at least in my opinion.

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with potting a bird that is not flying if your intention is to acquire food. People who look down their noses at such shots usually have a freezer full of food at home and plenty of bucks in their wallets. But for hunters like you and like me and like a lot of others who hunt for food as well as for sport, to take a bird on the ground or in a tree or on the water and then convert it into a meal is something that sport hunters really shouldn’t pass judgement on.

    I have to say, though, that I would never pot a bird that isn’t on the wing if other hunters are watching. A lot of very fine people, people I respect, would have a hard time with that so I think it is something that one should do in private, sort of like taking a dump.

  8. Phillip on September 9th, 2012 20:27

    And here I am, swinging open the door to the outhouse for the world to see. Oh boy!

    But I do agree, Bruce. Unless I’m chasing a crip, odds are that I wouldn’t shoot a dove from a tree, or ground sluice a quail in front of company… and certainly not during a large-scale hunt. This was pure pragmatism, although it’s not at all unlike shooting squirrels.

    And for what it’s worth, Friday morning I did go out and scratch three birds out of the air… and only seven shots! I really need to get a skeet thrower out here.

  9. Holly Heyser on September 9th, 2012 18:55

    ” A lot of very fine people, people I respect, would have a hard time with that so I think it is something that one should do in private, sort of like taking a dump.”

    That is hysterical!

    And of course, Phillip, you know I won’t argue with you on this. Except to say I feel bad about shooting up tree branches when I have no intention of eating them.

  10. David on September 11th, 2012 21:16

    First – You had me at Ithaca 37 Featherweight….I shoot one that rolled off the assembly line in 1955 or thereabout…

    Second – I shoot em where I find em.

  11. Phillip on September 13th, 2012 05:56

    It is a great gun, David, even though I don’t shoot it all that well. That would probably be remedied if I spent a little more time with it, but I’m generally pretty faithful to my SxS.