Typically, Magnolia Springs’ backroads are serenely quiet. Farms, both great and small, residential homes and open fields greet the casual observer. Rick Burmeister is not a casual observer. He is a dove hunter.
This morning near Fairhope is just one illustration of that fact. “There’s one,” Burmeister says, acknowledging a mourning dove perched on a powerline parallel to County Road 12. “There’s another,” he says. At bird number seven, the outdoorsman summarizes the scene with experience handed down through family generations. “This is a good place to hunt doves.”
Burmeister’s grandfather farmed Fairhope in the early 1900s. Later, his father, the late Fritz Burmeister, and uncle, Willie Burmeister, tilled Baldwin County acreage for over 50 years. Crops included corn, soybeans, wheat, oats and sorghum, some of which doves refer to as “the all-you-can-eat buffet.”
“In childhood days, we could walk out of our house and hunt doves,” the 66-year-old Daphne resident recalls, referencing his boyhood home on the outskirts of Fairhope. The family no longer owns the property but still possesses its memories.
As a child, Burmeister was a BB gun-toting slayer of squirrels. He was introduced to dove hunting by way of a Remington Automatic 410 shotgun. “Dad let me shoot it when I was about 12 years old,” the son remembers. “When I first pulled that trigger, it was pure joy. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m in the game now!’ Dove hunting became part of life.”
Fast-forward to today: “All of this was a pecan orchard,” Burmeister says from an automobile drive-by of his former residence. Pointing at the property, he notes, “We lost the whole orchard in Hurricane Frederick.”
But doves never left. The flock continues, and so do the hunters. “There’s three more!” Burmeister exclaims, pointing at feathered descendants of those he shot as a child. Sadly, times have changed since childhood.
“In those days, we hunted just about anywhere around here,” he explains. “Anywhere” included the woods in and surrounding Lakewood Golf Club in Fairhope. Fields were plentiful.
Dove hunting is different now due to changes in landscape. Baldwin County is trending residential. The days of wide-open fields, acres of crops and amber waves of grain are waning. Fortunately, Baldwin County’s gamebirds are adaptable.
“Doves can be found in city parks, backyards, anywhere there’s a food supply,” says Burmeister. But of course you can’t hunt them in many of those places. “Today, dove hunts are best accomplished by joining a club which is about 60% hunting and 40% mixing with good friends,” he says.
Left to right Rick Burmeister looks for doves over the field of harvested corn on County Road 32 in Fairhope. The property that his family once farmed is set to become ball fields for the city of Fairhope.
Club members learn from each other, build friendships and enjoy the great outdoors. Dove hunter Daniel Robinson is a co-member with Burmeister in a Magnolia Springs-area dove hunting group. “Rick is incredibly passionate about the sport,” says Robinson. “He is a gem, with a wealth of knowledge on dove hunting. We often compare stories, especially about how our boys are doing. I look forward to talking with him.”
Robinson also agrees with his friend’s take on dove hunting. “We hunt as a group but you don’t have to be still or quiet,” says Robinson. “It is the perfect outdoor sport for families and friends.”
“Dove hunting is a social thing,” Burmeister notes. “You are not isolated in a tree stand as is with deer hunting. There is much camaraderie in a dove hunting club.”
Typically, the membership consists of 25 to 30 hunters. Each dove hunt has a story, some of the best of which involve dogs. Now, most hunting dogs are well trained in their tasks — finding and fetching fallen birds. But for some dogs, eh, don’t quit your day job.
“I recall a time hunting with a friend who had a nice Labrador retriever,” says Burmeister. “But it kept scratching, pawing and sniffing everybody’s pockets.” It smelled club members’ snacks and was going crazy, darting from hunter to hunter trying to confiscate their crackers.
Burmeister recalled asking the owner, “Did you feed your dog this morning?” He replied, “No, I want him to run without being sluggish on a full stomach.”
First, the good news: The plan worked. When the first shots were fired, the snack-deprived canine did more than run; it took off like a bullet to retrieve fallen doves. Now the bad news: It ate the first three. “That dog owner never lived it down,” Burmeister smiles. Nor did the hunter erase the time he leashed a big muscular dog to his ankle. When somebody shot a dove, Super Dog took off, jerking the tethered owner out of his chair. “It dragged him about ten feet,” laughs Burmeister. Stories abound of human hunters, too. “There is always that one guy who thinks he can step over an electric fence,” Burmeister explains. “That person finds out the hard way: you can’t.” He also learns principles of electricity as applied to male body parts. Let’s just say the cries heard are not of doves cooing.
Hunting, camaraderie and friendships bonded in fields of birds are priceless, but safety is the forefront. Naturally, when it comes to 20 to 30 people with guns on a few acres of land, safety is paramount. “When I was in a hunting club with Rick, he always started our day with a safety discussion,” says Fairhope’s Eric Lacey. “He insisted we be mindful about shooting birds, especially low-flying ones. Rick would also space us out far enough so not to be in range of each other.”
Praising his friend, Lacey continues, “Rick approaches the club and its members with kindness and positivity. This is a high-level shotgun skill set. But it has social aspects, and it is a gathering of old and new friends.”
The rules are straightforward: “Shoot the bird while it is flying high, never low, and never on the ground,” Burmeister adds. “Also, for good sportsmanship, never shoot a bird roosting in a tree.” Firing at a sitting dove is not much different than shooting a chicken.
But shooting a dove in flight is another story, and that makes a good dove hunter. “Doves are very fast flyers and can weave, dart, and turn on a dime,” Burmeister continues. “Hawks, owls or other birds of prey rarely catch a dove in flight.” Predators usually attack when the dove is feeding or roosting. “The most challenging thing about dove hunting is taking it down in flight because they are so fast,” he continues. “Finding doves is relatively easy once you know what conditions to look for. But shooting one on the wing? Now that takes skill.”
What separates dove hunting from other wild game endeavors is there is no stalking and little need to be quiet. During autumn, when hunting and football seasons coincide, sportsmen often verbally cheer their teams on while listening to the game on radio, live from Baldwin County dove hunts. “I have always loved the talks and conversations we have before and after the hunt,” Burmeister says. “You are not isolated in a tree stand as with deer hunting. Put me in a deer stand, and it sways with a breeze blowing through the pines and I’m taking a nap.”
But with dove hunting, participants sit in chairs, waiting for the birds to fly over. Lounging in lawn chairs waiting for doves to approach sounds easy. It is not. True, anyone can sit, but in dove hunting, the key is knowing the best location to do so.
With most game shooting undertakings, the hunter approaches the hunted. With doves, the opposite is true. “Let the birds come to you,” Burmeister instructs. He explains how to do it, with a mastery of Doves 101. Know your quarry.
In an impromptu vehicle-classroom session, while driving from field to field, Burmeister explained Baldwin County’s bird of distinction. Mourning doves make up the bulk of the hunt but there are also ringneck doves and to a lesser extent, the white-winged dove.
Their food is seed — including crushed corn, millet, weed seeds, peanuts and sunflower. Doves feed in flocks in fields, farms and backyard birdfeeders. They are also attracted to sources of gravel, such as driveways, asphalt and road construction. “Doves swallow gravel which lodges in their craw and gizzard, and acts as the bird’s teeth in chewing food,” notes Burmeister.
Also, just as dove hunters are sociable, so are doves. They travel in flocks.
If doves had a motto, it would be “Follow the Food.” Feeding availability, accessibility and quantity govern the bird’s life. Every waking hour of its day is devoted to finding seed and eating it. As for climate, doves dislike winter but not because of the cold. “To doves, winter means less seed/food is available,” says Burmeister. “Check the national weather map. If the U.S. shows hard cold weather in the middle of the country and warmer weather down here, expect doves down here in a few days. Doves navigate the wind just as sea turtles maneuver Gulf currents. “If the weather is cold up north and strong winds are blowing south, doves hitch a ride on wind for the journey down here.”
Meanwhile, Baldwin County club members make ready for their favorite flocks. Club fields are sown with dove delights, such as sunflowers. “Doves love sunflower seeds. They eat it on the ground or right from the flower pod,” adds Burmeister.
Club members check the trees and fields. Text messages, phone calls, and emails are exchanged with predictions of where the doves are and will be. It is not an exact science but accurate enough. A group decision is made for when to meet. Let the hunt begin.
Rick Burmeister’s grandson, Hampton Stocks, comes along on the hunt to learn a thing or two from his PaPa.
“A field with a large thick oak tree and a power line is a good place to start,” notes Burmeister. “You may see a powerline with so many doves perched on it, the line bends,” he adds, “but don’t shoot.”
One or two birds will fly into the field. If they make it in okay and the others see the pair eating, more birds will follow, and then a few more, until the whole flock is in the field. So are the hunters. Alabama’s current dove shooting limit per day is 15. “If I bag eight to ten birds, that’s a good day for me,” says Burmeister.
Back home, the adventure continues. Burmeister and wife Carolyn have two grown children, Beth and Gray. Son Gray loves dove hunting as much as his dad. According to the father, Gray cooks game birds like a chef.
“Gray grills dove breasts and then adds cream cheese, jalapeno peppers, and wraps the whole thing in bacon,” says Burmeister. “Oh man, that is good. To me, the most flavorful way to cook doves is by smoking them or on the grill.”
From bird migration to dinner on the table, Baldwin County dove hunting is a friendly sport, of friends and families, young and old. Tales are told, techniques exchanged and memories rekindled.
All cheer the others on. For in dove hunting, there are no ruffled feathers. Rick Burmeister would not have it any other way.
Dove Hunting Season
According to Outdoor Alabama, dove hunting season runs in Baldwin and Mobile Counties from:
September 10 to October 29, November 18 to 26 and December 16 to January 14.
Hunting times are one half hour before sunrise until sunset.