Mark Solomons

Operation Turtle Dove: can these birds be saved?

With the exception of turkeys and geese, turtle doves are perhaps the birds most associated with this time of year. They are, of course, the second gift in The 12 Days of Christmas and they also feature in the nativity story – in the Gospel of Luke, a pair of turtle doves are sacrificed at the temple at Jesus’s circumcision.

From Roman mythology through to Vaughan Williams, turtle doves have long been symbols of love and devotion in western culture. According to Shakespeare, ‘a pair of loving turtle doves… could not live asunder day or night’.

Yet sadly the chances of seeing a pair today are dwindling. Since 1966, Britain’s turtle dove population has dropped from 140,000 pairs to just 2,100. The lack of the right kind of arable seeds at the right time of year is the main reason for the stunning decline in numbers. Turtle doves are, in scientific terms, ‘obligate granivores’, which means they eat almost entirely seeds. They need short vegetation, no more than around 15cm, on which they can land and feed on chickweed, trefoils, clovers and many other seeds. In the 1960s and 1970s, arable farming habits changed from spring-sown crops to autumn-sown ones. At the same time, since the 1970s, turtle doves’ nesting habitats have been vanishing as thorny scrubs on farms, village greens and gardens across the country have been replaced with neat lawns and beds.  

Turtle doves have also been victims of songbird shooting as they fly over western Europe – particularly France, Spain, Italy and Portugal – on their journey from Africa. The International Union for Conservation of Nature recently upgraded the turtle dove’s status from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘globally threatened’, which is only three categories away from extinct.

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