In Pursuit of the Eurasian Collared Dove
By Brad Trumbo
The dim rays of dawn streaked through the louvered cracks of the window shade causing me to stir reluctantly. I had never been to Florida, and the increasingly annoying sound of a rough-voiced bird cooing in the tree outside was wearing on my nerves. It sounded dove-like, but I guessed it to be a tropical species.
Having never heard such a bird in my Virginia hometown, I was shocked to recognize the same raspy cooing two years later when I moved to southeast Washington State. A dove, indeed; I was quickly acquainted with the Eurasian collared dove (Steptopelia decaocto), which expresses many of the same characteristics of its vocally superior U.S. native cousin, the mourning dove (Zenaida macroura).
The India-native collared dove is one of the most successful invasive birds in North America, experiencing widespread expansion across the U.S. following their incidental (read: volitional) introduction to Florida from the Bahamas somewhere in the 1970s or early 1980s. While no conclusive evidence is available regarding their competition with or effect on mourning doves, their vigilance, skittishness, and dodgy flight capability make them formidable quarry for a scattergun-wielding uplander.
Collared doves supposedly have a predictable, steady flight pattern making them an easier target relative to the mourning dove. I spent my childhood pass-shooting mourning doves and admit they can be erratic, but the collared dove is no less agile in my experience. Being a larger bird, they appear to have a slower top speed, but this is simply an optical illusion. In full flight, their razor-sharp vision catches the human form, subsequently steering the bird effortlessly into evasive direction, commonly outside of shotgun range.
Collared doves are known grain foragers coinciding with human settlement and low-intensity agriculture. Attracted to grain fields and grain storage facilities, collared doves are notoriously shifty with a keen eye for predators and a knack for keeping their distance from humans.
Where they occur, they can be easily found, but success can hinge largely on site selection. Food, water, and shelter are the key ingredients to optimum habitat. Research suggests that a closed tree canopy is inversely related to collared dove presence, but mature trees providing structure for perching, loafing, nesting, and predator surveillance over food sources are an important factor.
A sparse mix of healthy and dead or dying trees appears to provide the perfect structural diversity when adjacent to open areas with food and water sources. When active, collared doves tend to perch on dead branches or in otherwise open areas as they move about. When loafing, they tend to prefer the shelter of a healthy tree, particularly in the heat of the day.
Collared doves are most predictable in how they move within specific habitats. If you spend enough time watching you can identify preferred perching and loafing trees and common flight paths among them. Furthermore, collared doves are quite vocal, particularly during the crepuscular periods, singing their cuh-coooo-coo chorus when perched, and making what is poorly described in literature, but can only be the equivalent of a rah-rah bird growl when in flight, about to land.
Habitat preferences may vary among regions, climates, and the scarcity of one or more key features. However, locating birds is simply a matter of watching, listening, and identifying where and how they are using local habitats.
Pass-shooting collared doves requires the proper cover and patience; seemingly greater patience relative to mourning doves because of their tendency to loaf for extended periods, particularly mid-day. I prefer to pass-shoot when hunting alone to keep my profile and movement to a minimum.
Taking refuge under low tree cover where a tree line meets a food source or a flight corridor can be quite reliable. And don’t be afraid to wear camouflage. If you have access to private land, seeking cover just inside a barn door can provide perfect concealment, but don’t forget ear protection.
Collared doves offer the perfect opportunity to hone your still-hunting skills, testing the patience of any seasoned big-game hunter. Moving carefully with an ear to the wind, pursuing vocalizations may be the only clue to dove presence when loafing. The challenge lies in achieving a comfortable shot range before the bird spooks. If there were ever a time to doubt Wikipedia, you can count the claim that “The collared dove is not wary…” a busted myth on rural farms and public lands.
Still-hunting alone can be tough because vigilant birds spook well ahead in most cases. Collared doves can project their voice surprisingly well, so approach slowly and listen carefully. It’s easy to misjudge the location of a bird that’s concealed in the trees and facing away from you.
Depending on tract size, take at least one partner in crime. Multiple hunters move more birds and increase the likelihood of opportunity for everyone. Like a wary whitetail buck, collared doves almost always flush away from the hunter, only to circle around behind, returning to the area where flushed. Develop a game plan where you have the ability to push birds back and forth among the group while maintaining a safe line of fire.
Preferring to carry double guns, my 20-gauge CZ Bobwhite has done well for me, but a 12-gauge pump or semi-auto may be preferable for a larger wad and further reach. I typically shoot between cylinder and improved cylinder chokes when hunting over pointing dogs. But the many longer shots at these cagey, gray gliders leads me to choke up to modified, particularly with the 20-gauge.
Shot selection is another consideration for reach. I prefer 7-1/2 shot size, high velocity, but have also read the praise of 8’s or 9’s in high velocity with 1-1/4 ounce of shot. Lighter shot may be acceptable when shooting larger gauges, but high velocity loads are an all-around solid choice.
Know your Target
Ok, you have it all down. You’ve scouted and found some birds. You have an approach laid out to pass-shoot solo. You will carry your Ithaca model 37, 12-gauge pump. You dial the poly-choke to improved cylinder, stuff a box of shells in your pack and head off for the tree line at the other end of the grain field. You can hear the doves cooing as you close the distance. But wait, was that a mourning dove or a collared dove that just lit in the tree to your right?
By far, the most difficult challenge of hunting collared doves in the off-season is knowing with 100% accuracy that it’s really a collared dove on the far side of the bead. It’s a bit easier to decipher size and color differences between collared and mourning doves when pass-shooting, but still hunting requires extra scrutiny with quick shooting, particularly when pursuing vocal collared doves among other less vocal dove species. Even experienced hunters must approach each scenario with caution to avoid incidentally bagging a species protected indefinitely, or at least outside of the fall hunting season.
A Hunt for All
Pass-shooting doves is an American past-time requiring no fancy or expensive gear, only a bit of patience, a little wingshooting skill, and a valid state hunting license. An old Remington 870 pump or 1100 semi-auto, a bucket seat, and a crop field with a tree line can produce a fine hunt. The real difference between hunting invasive collared doves over the traditional mourning dove is the lack of a limit and season. It’s a perfect opportunity to introduce a young hunter to wingshooting or soothe the gripping withdrawal mid-way between the end of the prior and beginning of the next bird hunting season. It can even provide opportunity to work that new retrieving pup you’ve been neglecting. Making it happen is strictly up to the hunter to get his or her priorities straight!