September 8, 2011
by Chris Feeney
What do major league baseball players and doves have in common? A love of sunflower seeds. Unfortunately local farmers do not share a similar affection for the giant yellow flowers that produce the food loved by migratory birds and big sluggers across the nation.
For that reason, the small patch of the towering flowers planted annually by the conservation department at the Indian Hills Conservation Area near Bible Grove draws a crowd that might rival Busch Stadium on September 1st when dove season opens.
I was invited to take part in the season opener last Thursday. I had not hunted dove for several years, and previously had only done so on private grounds on the occasions a good group of birds was identified feeding near a cut wheat field or frequenting new pond banks seeded down with wheat for cover.
With no such options available, we headed to Bible Grove to take advantage of the MDC sunflower fields.
I was amazed when we neared the parking area on the backside of the conservation area. There were dozens of vehicles already pulled in, well before sunup. The field was dotted with headlamps and other artificial illumination, as much to help the hunters get set up, as to serve as a sort of lighthouse, warning other hunters away from their spots.
We were truly blessed to grab what turned out to be the final two spots at the end of the long, narrow strip of sunflowers that were left standing. The majority of the field had been mowed in preparation for the season, leaving just enough cover in the middle for hunters to use for their hideouts.
Not only were we fortunate enough to grab the only remaining real estate, it proved quite productive. We downed more than a dozen birds early on as they seemed to prefer our end of the field, which was adjacent to a tree line and other cover.
As a matter of fact, at one point I began to wonder if I had brought enough shells. My last few outings had not been nearly as productive, so I had felt confident one box of ammo would be enough. Granted that was not trust in my shooting skills but more of a lack of faith that we would have that many targets.
If I did my math right, I downed one dove for every three shells spent. My partner did a bit better, at least on the bag end, getting eight birds to my six.
With more than an hour of shooting under our belt, we both decided the mounting number of hunters filling into the field after daybreak make it seem like heading into work was a good idea.
It sort of reminded me of trout season. As more and more anglers line up on the banks, eventually courtesy gives way to crowdedness as the hunters patience wears out while sitting on the sidelines watching all of the fun.
We both deemed that we had received our fair share of the morning enjoyment, so it was time to let someone else take our spots.
As we walked up to the truck, the overflowing parking area had me pondering why more sunflowers patches aren't planted? I was laughed out of the kitchen the one time I suggested that some similar food plants be installed on the farm. Maybe the volunteer nature of the spread of the undesirable crop, forces it to be kept in check by such small exposures? Or perhaps Missouri isn't a natural sunflower climate? If that's the case, I'm guessing a few wheat food plots would worked just as well to draw in the birds. Because with the birds, come the hunters.
Currently the bulk of the less than 306,000 acres planted for production of non-oil products (I'm guessing that means seeds) occurs in North and South Dakota. According to the USDA, 1/3 less acres were planted for sunflower seeds in 2011. That doesn't sound look good news for doves, ball players or hunters.