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Band of Doves

WHITE CITY — Vince Oredson creeps slowly to an aluminum trap set in a field at the Denman Wildlife Area and finds a handful of mourning doves whose taste for oats has them ripe for inscription.

Oredson reaches into the trap and grabs a female dove, which rests docilely on her back as the state wildlife biologist slips a little numbered aluminum bracelet on her right leg and crimps and it closed with a pair of pliers.

"That right there is a beautiful bird," Oredson says.

He uncups his hands and the bird takes flight, bolting to a nearby set of trees with the other doves captured and banded that day — cooing away as if they're swapping stories about what it's like to sport new bling and work for Da Man.

Officially, she's dove No. 06276, part of a state and national mark-and-recapture program that not only helps biologists get good population estimates of these little game birds. It also has provided enough ammunition to get Oregon's season lengthened and its limit increased this year.

Birds are banded statewide, and hunters who shoot a banded bird turn the band in so biologists can calculate population estimates based on how many banded birds are "recaptured" by hunters, both in Oregon and across the continent.

The result is that the traditional 30-day September season in Oregon has been doubled to Sept. 1 through Oct. 30, and the daily limit has increased from 10 birds to 15.

The banding survey began here in 2008 and is nearly identical to the one used to estimated waterfowl populations. It replaces so-called "coo counts," during which biologists annually walked specific routes and counted how many dove coos they heard.

"That didn't tell you how many doves are out there. It just told you whether it was up or down compared to past years," says Brandon Reishus, ODFW's migratory game bird coordinator. "The new methodology is showing there are plenty of doves out there."

The survey shows a 2013 estimate of 48 million doves in the Western seven states that make up the dove's Western Management Unit as defined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That's about average for this portion of the continent, Reishus says.

Hunters in that unit last year shot about 1.8 million birds, with 1.5 million shot in California and Arizona, Reishus says. On average, about 3,000 to 5,000 Oregonians hunt doves, killing about 64,000 annually, he says.

Eleven of those birds had Mark DeGarmo's name on them.

The Medford hunter is one of about 60 who show up at Denman on opening day, which statistically is by far the best hunting day of the season.

"There were doves all over the place, and I got my limit," says DeGarmo, 45. "I brought my dad out the next day and we saw two and shot one. That was it."

That also is common.

In Oregon, 26 percent of the doves shot by hunters fell on opening day, and 80 percent were shot the first week, then effort and success fall off the charts, Reishus says.

DeGarmo says he takes five or six shots per bird and plans on trying to hit 15 on opening day at Denman.

"Getting five more last year would have been stretching it," DeGarmo says. "Besides, I don't know if I can carry that many shells in the field."

Oredson finds himself in the Denman fields most work days in July through late August during the dove-banding period.

He sets the dove traps in the evening and baits them with oats, which doves seem to have a soft spot for, then checks them around 7 a.m. before the heat of the day sets in.

The rudimentary traps make it easy for the relatively gullible birds to get in but they find it difficult to get out.

"They come in flocks," Oredson says. "They either all go to one field or they don't. It's kind of all or nothing."

This particular day of banding is classified as all.

Oredson bands 13 new birds and releases three birds he's already banded.

Each one flies to freedom out of his hands, but they fly more horizontally than vertically.

"They fly pretty low when they're upset," Oredson says. "They don't like to fly straight up. That's where the hawks are."

A juvenile bird, the 17th in the trap that day, was set to become No. 06190, but he dodged Oredson's hands and escaped.

"The one that got away," he says. "He got to have a good story to tell his buddies."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Vince Oredson releaes a banded dove at the Denman Wildlife Area. - Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch