Titled simply the 12 Days of Christmas, anyone who is anyone knows our famous festive favourite. Published in 1780, it would have seemed perfectly reasonable to include two turtle doves as a simple gift to a loved one. However, times have changed and 236 years later, should anyone see a turtle dove, they would be considered as rather lucky amongst many birders.
As many of us know, the turtle dove has not been a regular sight in the UK for a number of years. Finding themselves on the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern, the turtle doves continue to become increasingly rare. Between the years of 1970 and 2004, the population of turtle doves fell by 81% in the UK and since then, this number has increased to a loss of 93%. In fact, the numbers are so worrying, that it has been suggested that we could lose this species altogether by 2021. These days, the majority of turtle doves can be seen in the south and east of the country. However, it is not just the UK where the populations are precarious, with both the European and global populations of turtle doves being classed as ‘vulnerable.’
Arriving in the UK in late April and leaving toward the end of August, the turtle dove is a summer visitor to our shores. However, just because a species is migratory, it does not mean that we can wash our hands of their problems, attributing the blame on other countries and other conditions. In fact, in the UK, we are pretty certain that our declining number of doves is a result of fewer seeds available on farmland. So what seeds are so important to turtle doves? In particular, in the seeds of fumitory, knotgrass, cereal grains, oilseed rape and chickweed are very important and both adult and chicks rely on these seeds to survive. If you’re lucky enough to spot a turtle dove, you may see them feeding on the ground in areas of short vegetation after harvest, where there are areas of spilt grains and stubbles. It is thought that the lack of these areas and seeds is what are affecting the breeding success of the turtle dove.
Once again, we find ourselves faced with a struggling species and the temptation is to resign ourselves to their impending fate. However, never a defeatist, there are things that many of us can do to improve the conditions for this species. Turtle doves like to nest in the wide and tall hedgerows of thorny bushes such as hawthorn, with nests also known to be associated with species of climbers such as honeysuckle and bramble. So, want to help? Easy (ish), if you have hedgerows, allow them to grow to just over 4m tall and allow them to grow wide. In addition, allowing shrubby edges by forests is beneficial, providing more habitats for nesting. On farmland the requirements are much the same, allowing areas of tall scrub and having field edges and corners with hedgerows and shrubbery. If you have a pond, allow shallow banks so that the birds can reach the water safely, and maybe sow a few seeds in the garden to provide a source of some food.
Now, I appreciate that not all of us have a large area of farmland in which we can apply a helping hand (myself included), but if you do, perhaps provide areas of bird cover, and grow crops such as kale which will provide seeds each spring. Also, open cropping allows the birds access to the land and also encourages weeds, which admittedly, we may not like, but the turtle doves love! Or, another technique is allowing conservation headlands (areas of cereal crops, sprayed selectively so that some populations of broad-leaved weeds and consequently, insects accumulate), which provide seed rich margins.
Some of these suggestions may seem a little bit of a nuisance, or a little too simple, but they are what the turtle dove needs. However, these are only a sample of the available actions that can be taken to help the doves. Indeed, there are many others out there and they are easy to find.
Hopefully, if we can make a few changes and provide the habitats that the turtle dove needs, we may see some recovery in their populations. True, we may have to wait a bit, call on all our patience and put in some effort, but the results will be worth it.
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