In the Old Testament of the bible in the Song of songs, chapter 2, verse 12 it says; ‘The flowers appear on the Earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land’. Except that now the voice of the Turtle is not heard in our land, at least, not very often; I am not talking about a green sea turtle of course (though you can’t hear his voice either) but the Turtle Dove, Streptopelia turtur.
A symbol of love, friendship, loyalty, devotion and with a song that is (was) simply the sound of summer in England, this is a lovely bird that has contributed much to human culture and is an important part of its ecosystem. These migratory birds travel up from Africa to arrive in England around the first week of May, they build flimsy nests that resemble a mere clutch of straws and upon these platforms they often have two broods, raised on the adults crop milk. These small members of the pigeon family are fairly similar to the very much more common Collared Dove in shape, structure and how they fly – even their breeding display flight is almost the same. Yet in plumage they are strikingly different from any other British pigeon; a delicate blue-grey covers their head, back and a few other patches, black and white ragged lines form a badge on their necks, a light flush of musty rose is washed over their breast, their tales are long and distinctive with a white band along the outer edge and a center of charcoal-black. Their defining feature however is their wings; with primaries black and blue, and scapulars scale-like with black centers edged in bright bronze, you might think that it is this similarity to a turtle shell pattern which gives them their name – not so.
It is the voice of this dove which has made it famous, that and its perceived faithfulness to a partner, it is quite evocative of warm windless days in high summer, accompanied by the Cuckoo and the twitter of swallows overhead. The sound is not dissimilar to bubbles being released under water or a phone ringing under a pillow; though many describe it as like a purring cat or write it down as ‘turrr – turrrr’ – which is how it gained its Latin name.
But it seems that this wonderful bird is going the way of the Passenger Pigeon, having drastically declined since the end of the second world war; there is now only one dove for every twenty we had in 1970; consequently it is on the RSPB red list and research is being carried out to try and save it. The reasons for its fall in numbers are likely to be multifaceted and I doubt there is one single problem behind it; current knowledge suspects that the intensification of our farmland has reduced the availability of food (the plants Fumitory and chicory), that droughts in Africa have reduced survival in winter – and most tangible is the mass shooting of the birds on Mediterranean islands such as Malta or Cyprus (over 4 million are reputed to be shot each year).
This is already a rare bird; any sighting (or hearing) is special to the observer as it could well be your last, I have seen this dainty dove on the Greek isle of Lesvos, sitting on a telegraph wire in shimmering heat and purring away to itself – I would love to see the same in my own country. It would be tragic and damning on ourselves if we lost this bird, even worse if we lost it without even trying to save it or noticing its absence. Reporting sightings, joining or donating to the RSPB or your local wildlife trust and promoting awareness of the Turtle Doves plight are all things we can do to make a difference.