By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

It's a relatively time-consuming process, but biologist Helen Hands thinks the mourning dove banding project currently under way is far superior to a survey that relies on looking and listening for the birds.

Hands last week was busy running the circuit of dove-trapping cages in and around the city of Hays. It's the first time Hays has been included in the banding project, under way since 2003 in the Great Bend area and elsewhere around the state.

Birds caught in the traps are banded and then released after Hands, based at Cheyenne Bottoms, records data, such as the band number. She also records the sex and age, if that can be determined.

Hunters shooting the banded doves are asked to either call in the information or post it online at a federal Web site.

Alone, data from the banding project can be used to estimate harvest and survival rates. When combined with data assembled from the Harvest Information Program survey, total populations can be determined.

Roadside surveys offer an index to population size, but that's about it.

Currently, there are about 20 banding sites in Kansas, a big increase over last year.

By scattering safflower and sunflower seeds under the traps, doves generally walk into them and can't get out.

About every three hours, Hands or a summer helper -- Mandy Charles, a biology teacher at the Great Bend High School -- makes the circuit, banding the birds and then releasing them.

"This is the first year in Hays," she said as she prepared to visit one of the traps. "This particular site has been pretty good for young birds."

While Hands didn't want the exact location of the traps disclosed, she did say there are eight of them around town.

By the time the banding is done, Hands expects to band anywhere from 150 to 200 birds from the Hays area, and another 250 from the Great Bend area. Statewide, she said, as many as 3,000 birds might be banded.

There are about 40 states participating in the dove-banding project.

Hands is involved because, as the statewide dove biologist for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, responsibility for the project falls to her.

Trapping started around the first of June and will finish up Aug. 21.

The annual hunting season for doves begins on Sept. 1, a season that attracts plenty of attention.

Generally, speaking hunters harvest about 5 percent of the dove population.

"Which is way less than what they produce every year," she said.

A myriad of other factors affect dove populations.

Doves use nearly any type of habitat, Hands said, noting that they nest in trees and in pastures.

"They don't make the best nests in the trees," Hands said, and they frequently fall victim to motor vehicles.

She recently saw one on the roadway and had to stop to ensure that it was not a banded bird.

Ultimately, the trapping method could replace a driving route that entails frequent stops to look and listen for doves.

Surveyors might be getting older, she said, but the environment is getting noisier, especially in areas with irrigation or oil wells.

Overall, the population of mourning doves in western Kansas are increasing, Hands said, but are increasing in the eastern half of the state.

She's not sure, however, if that's a result of the roadside survey or simply the way the numbers are going.

"We're lucky," she said, "we're starting out with an abundant bird."

Despite that, Hands added, "always in the back of your mind you think of the passenger pigeon. But we don't have unregulated hunting like that."

The passenger pigeon, of course, was once the most abundant bird in North America. It fell victim to widespread hunting and became extinct in 1900.

With the trapping data, KDWP can watch and determine if harvest bag limits need to be regulated to ensure that mourning doves don't go the way of the passenger pigeon.

Hunters who kill a banded dove are asked to either call (800) 327-BAND or go online to www.reportband.gov.