Up until about five years ago rancher and dove outfitter Dusty Graves said white-winged dove were still an oddity in Coleman County.
“They had them in Brownwood, Bangs and even Santa Anna, but we didn’t have them here,” he said.
That has certainly changed as each morning the sky in town is blackened by the birds and a growing number of Eurasian collared doves.
Graeves is also seeing the change in hunters’ bag. Sending hunters to fields as far away as San Angelo and Abilene, he depended on the whitewings in years like last year when overall dove numbers were down around the state. In good years, like this year, the bigger birds are also popular with hunters.
“I have a field near Abilene that probably has 5,000 (whitewings) in it,” Graeves said of early season counts.
While still a novelty target with hunters, Graeves wonders aloud if the proliferation of white-winged doves is having an impact on native mourning dove populations.
“(The biologists) say they aren’t and we still have plenty of mourning doves, so I don’t know,” he said between hunts last week.
In fact Texas biologists don’t believe the expansion of whitewings around the state is coming at the detriment of mourning doves if for no other reason than the two occupy different habitat.
“Right now, as far as the department goes, we are not concerned about whitewing expansion,” said Shaun Oldenburger, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s dove program leader. “We are not seeing their expansion into where there are mourning doves, but that is everywhere.”
Oldenburger explained that while mourning doves nest throughout Texas, whitewings for some reason continue to relate to towns and cities for nesting habitat and roosts, but fly to the country daily to feed.
He said biologists aren’t certain why they remain town birds, but one theory has to do with the concentration of mature trees in an urban setting as compared to the country.
White-winged doves were seldom found outside the Rio Grande Valley prior to 1983. At the turn of the 20th century there were an estimated 3 to 5 million of the birds in the Valley utilizing the vast citrus orchards as nesting grounds.
In 1951 the area lost a lot of the citrus trees to a freeze. With farmers not replanting, that began the end of that industry and a significant change to other types of farming and urbanization. The result was a dip in whitewing numbers to an estimated 10 percent of what they had been at their peak.
It was also the beginning of the migration of the birds as far north as the Texas Panhandle and to a lesser degree east into the Pineywoods. Once an oddity, there are now more whitewings estimated to be living within San Antonio’s Loop 1604 than in all of the Valley.
The white-winged dove expansion has changed dove hunting in the state. Today Texas hunters take about 5 million mourning doves and 1.5 million whitewings in a good season, Oldenburger said.
To get their birds a lot of hunters are having to spend more time in the field as whitewings tend to show up an hour or more later than mourning doves depending on the field location.
“It definitely is a later shoot. There are birds going out at least 10 miles from town (to feed). I don’t know if anyone has studied how far a whitewing is willing to go from town. It may be upwards of 15 miles,” the biologist said.
Oldenburger said after the birds feed each morning they make the long flight back to town before returning again in the afternoon.
Like mourning dove the hot shooting for whitewings won’t last forever, at least in the more northern areas of the state. Whitewings also migrate. Birds banded in Texas have been found in Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador.
Even though the whitewings are Texas-reared birds and for the most part don’t migrate to other states, Oldenburger said there is little chance that they will be broken out of the regular dove bag to a point hunters are allowed to take more. However, there has been discussion that in the case of a reduce limit because of a downturn nationwide in mourning dove numbers that Texas hunters be allowed to keep up to 15 whitewings.
“Hopefully we don’t have to find out,” he said.
This is the final day of the two-weekend white-winged dove season in the Special White-winged Dove Area in 27 South Texas counties. The fall regular dove season in the North and Central zones remains open through Oct. 23. It opens Sept. 20-Oct. 27 in the South Zone.
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