The soft purr of the turtle dove has become an increasingly rare sound of summer. In today’s blog, Simon Wotton, Senior Conservation Scientist, explains why a national survey is needed for these birds and calls for volunteers

As the fastest declining UK species, the turtle dove is one of the highest conservation priority species for the RSPB. Between 1995 and 2018, we lost 95% of our turtle doves, and with such low numbers, monitoring is becoming increasingly difficult.

The Rare Breeding Birds Panel and RSPB, along with the support of BTO and Natural England, are planning to run a national turtle dove survey in 2021 (depending on the Covid-19 situation and a final budget confirmation).

These maps show the distribution of turtle doves in Britain in i/ the 1968-72 Bird Atlas and ii/ the 2008-11 Bird Atlas

Operation Turtle Dove and its many partners – farmers, land managers, communities, volunteers, and a whole raft of different organisations – have been working hard to improve things for turtle doves. We’re lucky in that we now have good scientific evidence to understand the causes of our turtle dove population decline, and therefore the confidence in that we are taking the right conservation approach.

We are helping provide good quality breeding season habitats – plentiful and accessible seed food, fresh water and dense scrubby nesting habitat. We are also tackling unsustainable levels of hunting on the turtle doves’ migration route.

Good progress is being made on both fronts. But a good picture of where and how many birds now breed in the UK would both help assess our progress, and help us identify those priority areas where we know conservation action will be beneficial.

Turtle doves can easily hide away in area of countryside seldom visited by birders or bird surveyors. We are sure that an intensive survey will reveal some breeding birds that we don’t know about. And we can’t help them, if we don’t know where they are.

Turtle dove at RSPB Titchwell Nature Reserve (c) Les Bunyan (rspb-images.com)

How to get involved

Surveys will aim to detect the presence and abundance of turtle doves within each selected 1km-square, with two visits between mid-May and the end of July. Each survey should be undertaken between sunrise and 0900: 70% of singing males should be detected within the first 2 hours after sunrise, after which vocal activity decreases markedly. The time taken for the survey will depend on the density of field boundaries.

The turtle dove survey webhub includes all the information needed to take part in the survey

The Homepage provides a brief survey summary, including a list of partners; while the Take Part page allows people to select survey squares and download survey instructions. 

The locations of proposed survey squares are shown on the interactive map on the Take Part page; with squares still available to survey shown in blue, and those already allocated displayed in yellow. Available squares can be selected by clicking on them. This should then take you to a link where you can email turtledovesurvey@rspb.org.uk a request.

We will then get back to you ASAP to confirm your request. Alternatively, you can email this address directly to request a square. Survey forms can be found on the Resources tab of the web hub. You will also be able to submit your records through the webhub when you have finished your surveys: this feature will be available on the web hub after the survey starts.

The Kent Ornithological Society is running a county-wide turtle dove survey in 2021, as part of the national survey so all squares in Kent are shown as white on the map.  For more details on the survey in Kent, visit here.

Not just turtle doves

As well as recording turtle doves, surveyors will also be asked to keep an eye out for other birds of conservation interest in the same areas. The resources that turtle doves need during the breeding season – seeds from annual or perennial low-growing plants such as weeds, accessible fresh water from drinking and bathing, and dense scrubby vegetation (preferably native broad-leaved thorny scrub/hedgerows) – are not unique to them.

Many areas that hold turtle doves are also good for other woodland and farmland birds – linnet, bullfinch, yellowhammer, Sylvia warblers, nightingale. The conservation work being carried out for turtle doves in the UK is highly likely to help a wide range of our wildlife, and not just birds, but plants, insects and mammals too.

The National Turtle Dove Survey is part-funded by Natural England through its Action for Birds in England (AFBiE) programme.

How to get involved

If you are keen to be involved in this national survey, please contact:

Simon Wotton             simon.wotton@rspb.org.uk      

If you would like any more information on Operation Turtle Dove, please contact

Guy Anderson             guy.anderson@rspb.org.uk

For more information on Turtle Doves, check the following websites:

Operation turtle dove

BTO turtle dove BirdTrends  

RSPB turtle dove species information

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