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Hunters follow wings of the dove

At 78, Artis Rhoden can remember dove seasons from 55 or 60 years back, when he and a handful of other farmers met at fields surrounded by forest and scrubland. Positioned far apart in the stubble of harvested grain, they heard one another's gunfire only as distant echoes.

This he recalled on Saturday, the opening of the 1992 season, standing in the drizzling rain within sight of 20 other hunters. When a single dove flew overhead, a half-dozen of them fired on it before its wings collapsed and it fell to the ground.

"Nowadays hunters will practically come over and sit on your lap," Rhoden said.

Though the mourning dove has never been considered a glamorous game bird, its abundance traditionally made it a commonly hunted one in Florida and the rest of the South.

And in recent years, species that require wilder habitat _ quail, for example _ have become almost exotic game, increasingly sport for the privileged. The dove, meanwhile, has continued to thrive despite development. It is now the most hunted bird in the state, and the expense and logistics of a dove shoot are no more imposing than a round of golf.

But just as the dove has become less a creature of the wild, so have the hunts.

At 8 a.m. Saturday, Jimmy Batten, a Hernando County farmer, parked his truck in a field a mile west of Interstate 75, an hour's drive north of Tampa.

The lighted signs from around the exit ramps could be seen through the foggy windows of his cab. Batten's own sign, which filled the bed of his truck, advertised in big red letters: "Dove Shoot."

He spent $2,800 planting a grain called brown-top millet. He had shipped in 110 big, round bales of hay, one for every acre. He had hoped to put a hunter next to nearly every one, at $20 a head. Another field in a more rustic setting three miles to the west, where Rhoden hunted, was similarly prepared and open to the public. Both would remain so on Saturdays through at least the first of the three phases of the dove season, which lasts until Oct. 25.

But it is opening day the hunters look forward to, when the birds are most numerous and least wary. It is opening day that Batten depended on for the big payoff. And for the first time in the 23 years he has staged a hunt, opening day was being washed out by a prolonged rain.

About an hour before the season officially opened at noon, fewer than 20 hunters were in the field.

"This is pitiful," he said, holding a slim stack of bills.

But even as the rain came down, Batten pointed out, birds continued to fly by in groups of two or three. Most doves had missed feeding on Friday because of the storm, he speculated, and if only a portion were now hungry enough to brave the weather, it would make for a good hunt. The woods around the field, he said, are just full of doves.

So, in fact, is most of the nation. The mourning dove population, spread through all the contiguous 48 states, is estimated at 475-million, said David Dolton, mourning dove specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And even though 45-million are annually killed in hunts _ including nearly 2-million in Florida _ there are actually more doves in the state than in 1966, the year they were first counted.

Because doves prefer to feed on grain and nest near fields, cultivation has expanded rather than destroyed their habitat. They are unique among game birds in that they can live comfortably in suburban yards or even in cities. They are able to survive heavy hunting because they brood as many as five sets of young during each mating season.

Dolton calls them a "renewable resource."

It is mistaken, though, to think of the dove as disposable simply because it is common, said Tom Webber, senior biologist at the Natural History Museum of Florida in Gainesville. Unlike many other adaptable birds, such as grackles and starlings, the dove is noted for its song _ the doleful cooing for which it is named _ and it's coloring, which is a subtle blend of olive, gray and white.

In 13 states, most of them in the Northeast, it is protected from hunting as a songbird.

"We could, if we wanted to, have a season on robins. And we could do it in such a way as to not endanger the population," Webber said. "But would we really want to? The real issues here are aesthetic and ethical."

Such a democratic hunt includes some who say they have thought hard about these questions, and some who say they are barely worth considering.

By noon, most of the hunters have, with their cars or trucks, staked out positions along the northern edge of Batten's field, near the border of the Withlacoochee State Forest.

Patrick Thwaites peeked sheepishly from his Cutless Ciera. He would wait until the rain let up, he said, and rolled the window shut.

A hundred yards or so east, in the muggy shelter of his Chevrolet Blazer, Tom Tomlinson, smoked cigarettes and read through an insurance text.

Now 47, he had resumed hunting about six years ago, when he found he was living entirely for his job as an insurance adjuster. He immediately realized how much he missed nature and the fresh air. Even the down time before the hunt, reading and smoking, he found relaxing, he said.

"I like to just get out, away from town and into the country," he said.

The proximity of the interstate does not bother him, he said. "I can just turn around and look at the trees."

He pulled on his jacket as he began to hear gunfire from the east. The hot corner of this hunt was where Batten's field abutted the state forest and the back lawn of a Holiday Inn. Every few minutes birds appeared overhead, usually a few at a time, prompting a flurry of gunfire that sounded like a skirmish.

Don Byrd of Lakeland had a good spot, next to a bale of hay, near the corner. He is a retired master sergeant _ short, balding and square-jawed _ and was dressed in green and camouflage. His brother, Mike Williams, in a yellow rain suit, yelled out to him. "Don! Don!"

Two birds flew between them, about 50 feet in the air. Both brothers shot once, Don bringing one bird down.

"Got one," he said, and trudged across the field to retrieve it. He returned with just a handful of bird, about four ounces. Its breast, wings and neck were pierced by bird shot from Byrd's 12-gauge, the wounds looking to be little more than pin pricks.

The bird was still soft and warm, but its neck lolled loosely. Byrd slipped it in a fold in his vest with one other bird he had already shot.

The killing does not concern him, he said. "The only thing that bothers me is if one is wounded."

Already one bird he nicked had flown into the forest too deep for him to retrieve. As he talked, his brother was wading along the tree line, looking for another wounded bird.

Byrd continued to pace and look up and around as he told stories of hunting in Germany and England and of serving in Vietnam. When he saw another bird, he crouched and shot. The bird's somewhat jerky flight, which is characteristic of the mourning dove, became even more erratic. It was obviously fading as it disappeared over the tops of the trees on the edge of the forest.

Again, it was irretrievable, Byrd said. "I don't like that."

"Any good hunter does his damndest to find that animal and make sure it is dead and not suffering," he said.

"It's just like the most torturous way for an individual to die is to cut him right across here," he said, pointing to his abdomen, "and hang him upside down. It takes two days to kill him. I've seen it happen."

His brother soon returned with his bird, one wing flapping in his hand.

"It's alive, I got him in the wing," Williams said.

"Well get his neck then," Byrd said.

Williams held the bird while Byrd twisted the neck until the head came off in his fingers. He then tossed it in the millet.

"That's the most humane way," he said.

It was, by then, mid-afternoon; the sky was lighter and Tomlinson was out and hunting. He was having a substandard shooting day, he said, having bagged one bird on 12 shots.

One fact that distinguishes dove hunting is that the bird's size and flight pattern make it a difficult target. According to the Fish & Wildlife Service, the average hunter fires four times for every kill.

Thwaites, true to his promise, had emerged from his car when the rain subsided. Opening the trunk he showed off six birds he had killed, half his daily limit, resting in a line on a clean towel. He had fired nine shells all day. He wore a white T-shirt with camouflage trousers, and had a modest demeanor. His success he attributed not to extraordinary accuracy but to shot selection.

"Here comes one," he said, starting to aim. "No, he's too low."

Shooting at low-flying birds endangers other hunters. Shooting at birds beyond the reliable killing range of the shotguns _ little more than 100 yards _ increases the chance the birds will be wounded.

Killing them, if it is done right, does not offend him, he said. He learned to hunt as a teenager in Jamaica in the 1950s. "I grew up on a farm and realized at a very early age that you have to kill to eat," he said. "Seventy-five percent of these doves are going to die within a year. That is a biological fact."

Though obviously, he said, he does not depend on doves for his subsistence, neither is the killing gratuitous. The entire process of getting out in the field, shooting the birds, then cooking and eating them provides an ineffable satisfaction, he said.

"It is difficult to explain to someone who does not hunt, why you hunt. People say that you just want like to kill, but it isn't like that. Killing an animal is never a joyful thing. To quote a famous Spanish philosopher, "You don't hunt to kill, you kill to have hunted.' "

His view across the field is of the passing traffic on State Road 50. He can see the interstate to his left, an Exxon station, a McDonald's and the Holiday Inn. The rewards of this kind of dove shoot are not quite what he remembers from hunts with his cousins on the farm in Jamaica.

"No. It's all right," he said. "But it's not the same."