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Out There: Doves and the laws of physics

9/28/2004

While perusing a government report recently, I came across this statement:

"More doves are harvested than all other migratory birds combined — around 41 million annually from a fall population that usually numbers around 475 million birds."

According to that statement, if you added together all the ducks killed each year, plus all the geese and snipe and woodcocks and rails and coots and other migratory birds, the sum wouldn't equal the number of mourning doves "harvested" by hunters.

I've just got one question: Does "harvested" mean killed or shot at?

Think about it. To kill 41 million doves, the hunters doing the shooting would have fired nearly a half-billion shot shells. That's an average of about 12 shells per dove, which I believe is being quite generous — at least in the circle of hunters I run in.

Do manufacturers actually make that many shells each year? I think not.

I've been a dove hunter since age 12, and experience has shown that any hunter who claims he can down more than two doves per box of 25 shells just can't be trusted.

Years ago, I watched one such roustabout scurrying surreptitiously around a field picking up downed birds other hunters couldn't find and adding them to his game bag. Even then, he had only three doves when everyone gathered back at the trucks.

And when he claimed to have killed all three with a single box of shells, everyone in the group started rolling on the ground in laughter.

"Killed three birds with one box, huh?" my uncle said.

"You'd come nearer to killing a grizzly bear with a peach switch than killing three doves with one box of shells."

Another guy, known by the name Deadeye, always made a big show of the fact he was carrying only a single box of shells into the field.

Other hunters with double the firepower would leave with no more than three or four birds to show for their efforts. But ol' Deadeye came in with a limit every time.

He was exposed as a fraud when another hunter went to pour himself a cup of coffee from Deadeye's extra-large, wide-mouth thermos and found the thermos crammed full of shot shells.

When the hunters found him out, Deadeye was forced to strip naked in the field, and they found his boots and underwear stuffed, as well.

The fact of the matter is, killing more than two doves per 25 shells is simply impossible.

Consider first the speed at which a mourning dove flies, which is just slightly less than the speed of light. You would have to lead a dove by three miles in order to have the slightest chance of hitting it, and everyone knows that even lead shot won't travel more than two miles.

On occasion, however, a shot is fired at just the right moment in time to transect the path of a rocketing dove and kill it. But according to the law of averages and the laws of physics, both of which I studied in college, this can never happen more than two times for every 25 shots fired. It is simply impossible.

Consider also that a mourning dove is about the same size as an anorexic rat. And that's when it's fluffed up and sitting on a branch.

When a dove goes airborne, it becomes even smaller, allowing it to fly totally unscathed through a heavy load of No. 9 shot fired from a full-choke shotgun at 15 yards.

If you could film a flying dove (another impossibility) and examine it frame by frame, you could see how the rare dove that actually passes through a shot stream maneuvers itself between all the pellets with such speed and dexterity that not so much as a feather is ruffled.

All of which brings up another point. If doves are indeed so small and so hard to hit, why do so many people hunt them? The same government report quoted earlier indicates that mourning doves provide 9.5 million days of hunting recreation for 1.9 million people each year.

If you spell that in longhand, that's 1,900,000 dove hunters. Where I come from, that's a heck of a lot of hunters.

The reason the number of hunters is so high is actually quite simple. Dove hunters always go afield in herds. No one ever hunts doves alone. In fact, most dove-hunting parties are comprised of 20 or more nimrods.

The reason for this is simple, as well. If each of the 20 hunters carried one box of shells into the field and actually killed two doves (a rarity indeed), the meat from those 40 doves would barely make a single serving for one hunter.

That's because doves, unlike chickens and turkeys, don't have drumsticks, thighs and wings. All they have is a breast. And a small breast, at that. The wings are nothing but feathers. The legs are vestigial organs — nonfunctional tidbits of bone and scales.

If all the meat were presented to a different hunter on each outing, then the statistics above indicate five hunters would get to sit down to a meager helping of dove breasts each season. At the end of every four years, every hunter in the party of 20 would have been fed.

All of which goes to show why doves can't be bought in a supermarket. The price per pound would be far beyond the means of most upper-class American citizens.

There was one other statement in the government report that caught my eye: "Mourning doves are known to live up to 31 years, 4 months."

I have no doubt this is true, but the statement should have been reworded to say, "Most mourning doves live up to 31 years, 4 months." No predator, not even man, is fast enough to kill a dove with any regularity. And without natural predators, doves live long lives.

When doves do die, they simply fall off their perch in the middle of the night. The reason you never see dead doves piled up under perching trees is because it takes an ant about 10 minutes to eat each one. If 50 died at once, they'd be devoured before sunrise.

I love dove hunting despite all these things. It's fun. It's challenging. And when it's my turn to take all the meat home, what gourmet fixings, indeed! Nothing is more delicious than those thumb-sized morsels of dark livery meat.

Last time out I killed 10 doves. Yes, I did! And it took only seven boxes of shells.

If I hadn't flunked physics in college, I might have killed one or two more. Trust me.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net.