Posted 25th Dec 2014
Turtle doves will be fondly thought of this St Valentine’s Day as they will soon be swooping through our skies bringing back the joys of spring, but sadly not before they face a perilous migration that may just see their evocative song fade out once and for all
The sweet song of one of Britain’s most legendary birds, the majestic turtle dove, is sadly petering out as numbers are on the rapid decline. On St Valentine’s Day this icon of the English countryside is often remembered for its romantic affiliation through history as the avian symbol of true love. With its mushroom-coloured plumage tinged with tortoiseshell patterning and a soft orange fringe across its feathers, black ‘cat scratch’ marking on the neck and striking red eyes, the turtle dove is truly one of our most exquisite birds. Its gentle ‘purr’ is often heard before it’s seen, though sadly its call is one we are hearing less and less.
‘Turtle doves have declined by 93 per cent since the 1970s. It’s tragic and it’s gathering pace with birdwatchers literally chasing around the UK to see them,’ explains Simon Tonkin, Conservation Manager at Fair to Nature, a partner in the Operation Turtle Dove project launched in 2012 hoping to reverse the dramatic decline. Currently turtle doves are most often spotted in areas along the East England coast, but a sighting is still a rarity.
The turtle dove is a summer visitor to the UK and Britain’s only migratory dove, breeding here from late April or early May to late August, spending the winter months in sub-Saharan Africa. ‘In the 1960s turtle doves were having four broods in a season and then in the Nineties one or maybe two, but now it’s only one if you’re lucky. They are struggling because of the lack of food here, that they would have found from wild plant species that, due to the way we farm, have been removed from our countryside. Yet that’s only one part of the problem. They’re also hunted on their migration routes and due to declines in brood success this hunting has an ever greater impact. It’s a perilous migration,’ Simon explains. Sadly the turtle dove is heavily hunted, particularly on its flight over Southern Europe and Northern Africa, and when those that make it arrive they are unfortunately greeted with diminishing seed-bearing plants.
Though many of us have sadly never set eyes on one, the dainty turtle dove is well known in literature, also cropping up in the Twelve Days of Christmas carol, in the Bible and for centuries a pair of turtle doves has been seen as the ultimate symbol of true love, as the birds form strong bonds that can last for years, unlike many other species. Slightly larger than a blackbird, the turtle doves are named so for their poetic ‘turr turr’ sound, a song that can be heard from far and wide, cooed by males to attract a mate. During breeding season the turtle doves build an open nest in a tall hedge or scrub in a woodland or on farmland and, once the brood has hatched, will feed them on ‘crop milk’ produced by cells lining the crop that the parents then regurgitate, with both parents sharing equal incubation and feeding duties. The young fly the nest after just three weeks and rely on the availability of shoots of grasses and weeds such as knotgrass and chickweed, plus the occasional insect, to survive in the wild.
The arrival of the turtle dove back in Britain truly marks the start of spring, joyfully referenced in the Song of Solomon: ‘For behold, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers have already appeared in the land; the time has arrived for pruning the vines, and the voice of the turtle dove has been heard in our land.’ Whilst they’re here it’s important that we keep our eyes peeled and report any precious sightings via BirdTrack, a brilliant online tool run by the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology), the RSPB, Birdwatch Ireland, the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club and the Welsh Ornithological Society, to track the migration movements and distribution of birds throughout Britain. There are other ways we can help too – if you have a rural garden with a pond, encourage scrub to develop around it, also plant areas with summer seeds including fumitory, birdsfoot trefoil, red and white clover and black medick, and buy Fair to Nature products marked with the Fair to Nature logo, safe in the knowledge that they’re made with ingredients from Conservation Grade-accredited Nature Friendly farms that are helping to save turtle doves.
So, though this St Valentine’s Day we won’t quite be able to see this beautiful bird or hear its evocative sound, we can take small steps to help our feathered friends have a comfortable return, which just might save this bird on the brink.
To find out how you can help save turtle doves visit www.operationturtledove.org
Read the rest of this feature on p.90 of the January/February 2015 issue...
By Natalie Crofts
Images courtesy of The RSPB: Andy Hay