Small Grains for Small Birds

By Nick Simonson

Dove hunting season is truly the initial sign of fall.  Federally set to start on the first of September this year, as it has most every year in the past, the chance to take mourning doves begins in an autumn month and kicks off as the calendar page turns.  Well ahead of most other upland game species, with grouse opening about two weeks down the road and pheasant hunting still six weeks away, doves provide uplanders with opportunities to get out in the field and shake the rust off in pursuit of a challenging species.  Success often hinges on another fall ritual: the harvest.  Knowing where those small grain fields are that draw doves in to feed in the morning and evening can help hunters find the right spots to keep their barrels swinging.


Can Do


One of the first harvested grains in late summer is also the smallest, and to an experienced dove hunter, canola provides a magnet for these flighty birds.  Where 20 years ago they were rarer, canola fields have popped up more frequently on the landscape and are easily scouted and identified.  The bright yellow fields often fill out in August and are beginning to come down by the time the dove season starts.  According to the USDA, about one third of canola fields have been processed by farmers at the start of the mourning dove season, in an average year. With that cutting of one of the fall’s first small grains comes dove movement.  The tiny black seeds of the canola plant provide an easy meal for these gray upland birds, and a freshly harvested field is a magnet to them. Identify staging areas along the edges of a cut canola field and places of cover or find a water source nearby and get ready for fast action.

Eat Your Wheaties

Another mighty attractant to doves is a classic food source: the cut wheat field.  As combines fire up for this ubiquitous small grain found across the prairie in late summer, doves will move in to gorge on those kernels that litter the ground after harvest.  Often interspersed between corn fields and soybean fields, that surrounding agricultural cover allows hunters to set up on the edge of the cut field with the shield of taller plants behind them.  In areas of the upper Midwest where those crops dominate and wheat is a rarer commodity, it’s important to mark those fields now, contact a landowner and get permission to hunt when you get word that harvest has completed.  Put a set of decoys along a nearby fenceline or in the first few yards of the field edge, along with a motorized model where legal, to draw doves in.  USDA records show an average of nearly 60 percent of all varieties of wheat fields being harvested by dove season opener, providing plenty of staging spaces for hunters.


Sunny Side

Finally, in the big three of dove-related small grains, sunflowers provide a significant fall food source for doves, but usually don’t come down until later in the season.  However, as the heads dry and some smaller seeds fall to the ground, doves key in on this option when the previous small grain sources begin to get picked through.  Having a sunflower field at your back while set up in some cover or along a small stock pond is an ideal combination, especially later in September as northern doves migrate through the area and stop for a rest and refueling.  Like canola, the yellow heads of sunflowers are easy to identify now when out scouting around, so have those fields as a backup if you’re looking to extend your dove season.

In addition to these small grains, other options like barley, oats and sorghum can attract doves this time of year and set your September up for some super hunting.  Mark those places where small grains break up the di-culture of soy and corn that dominate the agricultural landscape these days, and identify nearby water sources and cover to find the trifecta that will provide great hunting and good memories to the start of your autumn adventures.

Featured Photo: Mourning doves are drawn to recently-harvested small grain fields this time of year. Simonson Photo.

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