I killed my first whitewing 25 years ago at Sharyland Plantation close to Mission down in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
Search out that location on Google now and you get listings for condos and apartments and houses for sale. But they used to have fine dove hunting there.
In those days, whitewings were almost totally confined to the valley. You had to go there to hunt them. The state even had a special whitewing season squeezed into the first two weekends of September. You needed a whitewing permit, and you needed to have it on you.
Much has changed since then.
Whitewings — despite previous thinking that they were a tropical species limited in where and how they could survive outside the narrow band of habitat along the Rio Grande — began stretching out, moving and flourishing north of the valley, especially around San Antonio.
By the late 1980s people in Austin were calling in to report seeing groups of whitewings in their yards. Hunters began to kill a few here and there, enough that dove hunters in Central Texas were forced to purchase the $7 whitewing stamp to stay out of trouble.
That brings us to today where whitewings, especially close to cities, are probably more visible than mourning doves, the sporty cousins most of us grew up hunting. Drive anywhere along Mo-Pac or I-35 in the morning or afternoon and you’ll likely see hundreds of whitewings passing back and forth, headed for feeding grounds outside the city or roosting areas in the heavy trees in town.
We’ve gone from a limited number of whitewings in the Central Texas bag to being able to fill the bag with 15, no matter where you are in Texas. And those birds we thought so fragile and maybe even headed for extirpation north of the Rio Grande, now have nesting colonies in East Texas and the Panhandle. There has even been a confirmed sighting in Canada.
It’s an expanding population and one that Texas Parks and Wildlife biologists are trying to let hunters take advantage of. With that in mind, the department has gained approval from U.S. Fish and Wildlife to expand the special whitewing dove zone again this year.
The department will publish in the Texas Register new rules that will move the northern boundary for the special zone to a line along Highway 90 from San Antonio to Del Rio and then eastward to Interstate 37 from San Antonio to Corpus Christi.
“They’re continuing to expand. Whitewings are statewide now,” said Shaun Oldenburger, program leader for Texas Parks and Wildlife. “We’re just increasing the opportunity for hunters.”
The special whitewing season still will be the first two weekends of September but changing the zone boundaries will allow more hunters the opportunity to hunt them there before the regular South Zone season begins around September 20 each fall. Central and North Zone hunters are allowed to begin hunting September 1 but studies have shown that there still are high numbers of nesting mourning doves in South Texas at that time, and there is a need to protect those birds until chicks are fledged.
In order to get permission to use the early weekends to hunt whitewings, TPWD had to agree to limit the number of mourning doves in the bag, Oldenburger said. That limit will be set at no more than two during the special zone weekends. The total daily bag will remain 15 birds. The limit still allows as many as two white-tipped doves in the daily bag.
The increasing numbers of whitewings in Texas raises the question about whether those larger, more aggressive doves could be displacing mourning doves. “I don’t think they’re displacing mourning doves,” Oldenburger said. “We don’t have any concerns from that.”
In 2011, Texas hunters killed an estimated 5.9 million mourning doves and 2.5 million whitewings.