Species Focus: Turtle Dove

Turtle doves, with their upper part feathers mottled chestnut and black, could be called a summer bird. Arriving in spring and leaving in late summer, the migratory Turtle doves’ purr is one of a sound of sunshine. However, it is often only winter that this little dove is ever mentioned.

Turtle doves, a fond member of the pigeon and dove family, prefer warm climates, inhabiting England’s southern and eastern areas and known to migrate to Africa during winter. Small in appearance, the doves frequent orchards, hedgerows and woodlands. This dainty bird is increasingly far from a common summer sight. Turtle doves face an uncertain future as the UK’s fastest declining bird species, and are marked as red in terms of UK conservation status. Such an ecologically unique bird has undergone considerable species decline in recent years, with little attention on why or how.

Operation Turtle Dove, a project aiming to reverse the decline, puts the cause down to 4 major factors: food shortages in breeding range, loss of habitat in non breeding range, unsustainable hunting and disease. Turtle doves are Europe’s only long distance migratory dove, travelling more than 5,000 km to reach their winter destination. On this journey, many doves are shot at. A 2007 figure showed that in EU member states 2 – 3 million pairs of the bird were hunted which Operation Turtle Dove notes that if these figures are still accurate, hunting could be a significant factor in population decline.

According to the project, a disease called trichomoniasis has also recently been found highly prevalent in researched turtle doves. An RSPB supervised PhD project launched in April 2013 investigated the effect the disease has on the species. Fieldwork took place across East Anglia and the produced results was especially helpful in giving data about the proportion of the disease in breeding doves, which can be used to assess future impact.

Inadequate habitats is notoriously a factor of wildlife decline and turtle doves are particularly suffering. Operation Turtle Doves (OTD)  agrees that the loss of suitable habitat on UK breeding areas has lead to food shortages and this is now the biggest factor of decline. As their diet is entirely seeds, the shortage of weed seeds has been detrimental to the birds. Fortunately, OTD’s project heavily focuses on feeding habitats within East Anglia and the usual breeding ground of southern and eastern UK.

Turtle doves also face problems when not in the UK. Africa is their home from October to March and research has just started on the species’ activity away from England. The doves usually roost in sites safe from predators and threats, but with trees disappearing sites are becoming sparse. With increased intensive agriculture, woodland is lost and the doves pay the price.

Operation Turtle Dove explains how to help the future of doves, focusing on the biggest threat – loss of suitable breeding habitat leading to food shortages. If you manage land for example, there is a web page dedicated to conservation knowledge as well as information on how those involved can receive free habitat management advice from their Turtle Dove Conservation Advisors. If you have a garden or green space there are also gardening tips on how to cater to visiting populations.

With a myriad of other ways to help, it’s perseverance and dedication that will help bring back this bird from the brink of extinction, no winter magic required.




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image credit: ARLOUK

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Rosie Alice

Rosie Alice

Environmental writings and NGO volunteer
Rosie Alice

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