I’LL ALWAYS REMEMBER my first experience with white-winged doves. I was in the company of a great friend who is no longer here to hunt and fish or drink a beer with me.
Jerry Simmons and I arrived in Uvalde shortly after noon on the eve of another Texas dove season, but it appeared as though we had rolled into the City of Chevrons.
The plump-chested birds were everywhere. They were perched on power lines. Strolling leisurely down sidewalks. And zipping in and out of traffic like bees buzzing a hive.
There were white-wings sipping water at the curbsides. We even saw a few birds loafing on convenience store gas signs, which at the time advertised diesel for $1.70 per gallon.
Simmons and I could only imagine how many birds might be hunkered down in the big live oaks and pecans lining both sides of U.S. Highway 90. Hunting outfitter Greg Nelson already had a pretty good idea.
That’s why he dumped us along the fringes of a 200-acre grain field on the outskirts of town the following morning. He cordially pointed us in the right direction and wished us a good hunt before driving away.
It turned out to be great one.
Shortly after daylight birds began pouring out of nearby residential areas, sometimes in gangs so thick they resembled dark puffs of smoke against the rising sun.
Large flocks of white-wings skirted the tree line at our back, but it was the doubles and triples that peeled off and offered challenging broadside shots at 35 yards that interested us the most. We were in the birds’ breakfast spot and they wanted in there.
Volley after volley, shot after shot, we gradually filled our daily limit and backed it up with a similar shoot the following day. In looking back, it was one of the best weekends of pass shooting I have ever experienced — typical of well-timed outing in good white-wing country.
So named for a brilliant white patch clearly visible on both wings while in flight or at rest, white-wings are classy-looking birds with dark lines on their cheeks and crimson eyes framed in baby blue.
The square-tailed doves are noticeably larger than their mourning dove cousins, yet smaller than exotic Eurasian-collared doves that are frequently found on the same turf. Hear one and you’ll know it by the bird’s signature trill, a distinctive four-syllable chant sometimes described as “who cooks for you.”
Another distinguishing trait is the manner in which the birds fly. According to Owen Fitzsimmons, white-wings tend to follow a much more predictable path in flight than darting,
diving, mourners. This naturally makes them easier to peg with a scattergun, but they still pose a darned challenging target.
“In flight, white-wings are bulkier and slower and usually have a more direct flight path than the often erratic, zigzagging mourning doves,” said Fitzsimmons, a wildlife biologist who heads up the webless migratory bird program for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “Mourning doves have been clocked at 55 miles per hour, and I would imagine that white-wings might be able to approach that with a really stiff tailwind. Otherwise they probably average around 30-35 mph.”
Dove hunters are prone to bump into a white-wing anywhere in Texas nowadays, but prior to the early 1980s the gregarious birds were seldom seen very far north of the Rio Grande. Fitzsimmons says major freeze events from the 1950s-80s repeatedly killed off citrus crops in the Rio Grande Valley, destroying much of their preferred nesting habitat.
Not all the birds left, but some of them did. While the Valley still maintains some the densest concentrations of state’s white-wings, the birds have gradually expanded their range northward. Along the way they have adapted well to the city life and free groceries that come with it.
“The lack of nesting habitat in the Rio Grande Valley prompted birds to begin taking advantage of the rapid urbanization in south Texas in the 80s and 90s, and they have expanded into urban areas throughout the state over the past 30 years,” Fitzsimmons said. “Urban and residential areas often provide large, mature live oak, ash, and pecan trees for nesting and roosting, and plenty of backyard food and water resources throughout the year.”
And their numbers are growing at a rapid pace. In the late 1990s, Texas had white-wing breeding population estimated at around 1.5 million birds. Today, Fitzsimmons says they number around 10-12 million. By comparison, last year’s mourning dove population in Texas was estimated at around 35 million.
The biologist says the most recent estimates show around 80 percent of Texas white-wings have set up camp in and around urban areas throughout the state, and their numbers continue to expand.
“White-wings are now breeding in Oklahoma, and they are ranging across the continental US with sightings all the way into southern Canada, Fitzsimmons said.”
Fitzsimmons says the Rio Grande Valley remains stronghold for hunting white wings, but adds that significant breeding numbers also have been documented along I-35 corridor from D/FW to San Antonio and throughout the state’s South Dove Zone. He said big cites like San Antonio and Dallas have big numbers of birds that frequently spill over into smaller towns and communities in outlying areas.
“We have limited data for harvest by county, but typically counties in central Texas (Guadalupe, Travis, Bell, Williamson), south and west of San Antonio (Bexar, Atascosa, Medina, Frio, Uvalde), south of Houston (Wharton, Matagorda) and Rio Grande Valley (Hidalgo, Cameron, Starr) consistently rank near the top for white-winged dove harvest,” he said. “There aren’t any indications that suggest that white-wing expansion is slowing down, so I expect that white-wing hunting opportunity will continue to improve in other parts of the state in the future.”
The biologist says Texas dove hunters shoot about 2-3 million white-wings each year. Not surprisingly, the best hunting almost always takes place in close proximity to urban areas, usually relation to cultivated grain fields found along the outskirts. Sunflower, milo and cornfields attract hordes of birds. The also can found in areas with native forbs and grasses that thrive when rainfall is sufficient.
“Some of the best white-wing hunting in the state is in fields just outside of towns like Uvalde, Hondo, El Campo, and even large cities like San Antonio and Houston,” Fitzsimmons said. “Urban areas provide plenty of refuge during the day with water and large trees to loaf in. If you can pattern these birds you can have some outstanding hunts within spitting distance of town.”
No arguments, here.
You don’t have to grow up in a family of hunters to enjoy hunting. Meet an Austin man who took up hunting and fishing as an adult, and is determined to pass along these traditions to his sons.
—story by MATT WILLIAMS