The first time I hunted white-winged dove it was during a special white-winged dove season in the Rio Grande Valley more than 30 years ago. At the time it was the only place in Texas the birds could be found and hunted.
Starting in 1941 the four-day special season was a fiesta that attracted thousands of hunters from around the country to hunt a bird whose seemingly only difference from a mourning dove was that it was slightly larger and had a white stripe on its wing. At one point the white-wing population in the region was estimated at 3 to 5 million, but destruction of their natural habitat for fruit orchards in the 1920s and then a series of freezes in the 1950s displaced the birds and numbers in the Valley fell to 300,000 to 500,000.
Some migrated permanently south into Mexico and beyond, others began a move north into the state.
The next time I hunted white-wings was around Brownwood. They were still an oddity in most fields, but by that time white-wings were found in larger numbers inside San Antonio’s Loop 1406 than in the Valley.Now days there are at least 10 million, some say as many as 25 million, statewide with the majority being outside the Valley.
Last year Texas hunters took an estimated 4.5 million mourning doves and 2 million white-wings statewide. With the special season (Sept. 1-2, 8-9) expanded throughout the South zone beginning in 2017 it accounts for 25 percent of the state’s annual white-wing harvest. However, in the Central and North zones, which open Sept. 1, the birds are no longer uncommon.
“Really anywhere in South Texas can be good, but there can be excellent hunting around any mid-sized or bigger city or town across the state these days. White-wings are mostly urban birds, they’ll roost in town and flock out to feed,” said Owen Fitzsimmons, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department dove program leader.
The biologist said that outside South Texas the bulk of the state’s white-wing population is found along the Interstate 35 corridor from San Antonio to Dallas-Fort Worth, but can be found in most Texas towns with nearby agricultural production.
White-wings are included in a hunters daily bag limit of 15 birds. With the expansion of the population the harvest of white-wings could possibly be even higher, but because the birds have taken to urban areas they often do not arrive into fields until after hunters have already limited of mourning doves. Traveling 10 miles or more to feed they also only offer high passing shots to some hunters.
After historically not expanding beyond the Valley in Texas, biologists are at a loss to explain the white-wings’ jailbreak north.
“That’s a million-dollar question. Nobody is really sure what prompted the range expansion aside from loss of habitat, but it could have something to do with climate change or some other environmental factors. What’s interesting is that it isn’t just white-wings in Texas. White-wings across the southwest U.S., like New Mexico and Arizona, which are actually a different subspecies, have expanded over the past few decades too,” Fitzsimmons said.
He added part of the problem in understand the relocation is a lack of information about what is happening with the birds in their native habitat in Mexico and Central America.
“No doubt the reason they have been so successful here is that they’ve taken advantage of urban habitat. Urban areas can provide year-round food and water, mature trees to nest in and warmer temperatures year-round. White-wings in the Valley tend to be less reliant on urban areas, presumably because their historical food and habitat still exist there, which reinforces that urban habitat is what primarily supports the birds further north,” Fitzsimmons said.
Along with the expansion of the white-wings has been the introduction of Eurasian collared dove. With no limit or season for them, Texas hunters killed an estimated 300,000 Eurasians last year.
“Eurasians seem to be pretty well distributed across the state. They are about 50/50 rural and urban, but densities are highest in the Rolling and High Plains and South Texas, probably due to extensive ag operations and cattle feedlots,” Fitzsimmons said.
Larger than white-wings, Eurasians are native to India and surrounding areas, and migrated into the U.S. after being taken to Caribbean Islands to replace turtle doves.
Biologists remain concerned about the potential of Eurasians spreading diseases to other species.
“Disease transmission is definitely still a concern. Eurasian collared doves often have a higher prevalence of certain parasites and viruses than our native doves, and with that higher prevalence there is a greater chance of spreading pathogens anywhere birds congregate, particularly in small areas like backyard feeders and waterers. They are also known to carry Newcastle Disease, which is a virus that is highly contagious and deadly in domestic fowl,” Fitzsimmons said.
So far, no disease outbreaks caused by Eurasians collared doves has been reported.
The regular dove season opens Sept. 1 in the North and Central zones, Sept. 15 in the South zone.