For a wingshooting challenge, nothing beats mourning doves. Perched on a telephone line, the somber gray birds seem almost tame. But these same birds top 50 mph on the wing, and are capable of aerial maneuvers an F-18 pilot would envy.
That's why the mourning dove is North America's most popular game bird and, indirectly, why the Missouri Department of Conservation is launching a crusade to reduce litter in fields managed especially for doves.
In recent years, the Conservation Department has worked to increase dove hunting opportunities on public land. That has meant planting sunflowers, wheat and other grain crops on conservation areas statewide. By disking, harvesting or mowing fields just prior to the Sept. 1 opening of dove season, the agency creates prime dove habitat and excellent hunting. Thousands of hunters now flock to conservation areas each September to enjoy fast dove-hunting action.
Doves are such difficult targets that even talented shotgunners often fire two or three shots for every dove they bag. The average at conservation areas where records are kept is five shells per dove.
Last year, Missouri hunters killed more than 800,000 mourning doves. It doesn't take a math whiz to figure out that dove hunting generates a lot of potential litter.
"We are talking about something like 4 million empty shotgun shells and 160,000 cardboard boxes that the shells came in," said Wildlife Division Administrator Dave Erickson. "When the action is fast, it's easy to lose track of empty shells and boxes. Even if hunters only left every fourth shell and box on the ground, that would be a huge amount of trash. Dove hunters do a pretty good job of cleaning up after themselves, but there's still room for improvement."
Keeping track of empty shells is most difficult with guns that eject hulls. One way to make this manageable is to shoot from only one location at a time and pick up all hulls before relocating. Another solution is to retrieve shells after each shot.
The fact that spent shells are slightly longer than unused ones makes it impossible to get empties back in their boxes. The game pouch of a hunting vest or a plastic grocery bag helps keep litter organized.
Erickson noted that shotgun shells are small, and finding empties in thick vegetation can be nearly impossible.
"There is no need to feel guilty if you can't locate every shell you fire. You can make up for it by picking up every shell you see, even those that were left by others," he said.
Deliberately leaving empty shells and boxes behind after hunting meets the legal definition of littering. It carries a fine of up to $1,000 in Missouri.
"Having a bunch of trash left in dove fields reflects poorly on hunters," said Erickson. "We don't need that kind of image."
"I look at litter in dove fields as more an ethical problem than a legal one," said Erickson. "But intentionally walking away from 30 or 40 empty shotgun shells is pretty darned irresponsible, and I don't feel sorry for someone who gets a ticket for trashing a dove field."
Maps showing the locations of Conservation Department dove fields are available through Conservation Department regional offices statewide. A list of areas with dove fields is available at http://www.conservation.state.mo.us. Click on "Hunting and Trapping," then "Game Birds" and then "MDC areas actively managed for doves."