Author: Carrie Carey
It’s early in the morning and the gentle but unmistakable purr of a turtle dove is carried across the silence of the empty car park at RSPB Titchwell Marsh. This soulful sound conveys a whisper of hot summer days and balmy evenings and though once common, is now the long lost background of my childhood. Sadly, a bird that I was well acquainted with in my youth is now considered at risk of global extinction. It is the UK’s fastest declining bird and a cause of concern for RSPB conservationists who are taking measures to understand why numbers are crashing so rapidly.
The turtle dove tolerates the heat yet incongruously features in the Yuletide narrative of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Far from enjoying the cold climes of England, turtle doves undertake a long distance migration to over winter in sub-Saharan Africa. They are the only surviving members of the pigeon family to do so and their 5,000 km journey is just one facet of their remarkable bid to survive against great adversity.
Photo credit: Les Bunyan
These birds are not picky by nature and are quite at home in lowland heath or areas of scrubby woodland. Preferred nesting sites include mature hedgerows filled with thorny brambles or hawthorn and their staple diet consists of arable plant seeds such as scarlet pimpernel, chickweed and fumitory. Unfortunately for the turtle dove, agricultural intensification has contributed to the decline of suitable hedgerow nest sites and the reduction of these arable weeds. Similar challenges face these birds in their winter habitats where periodic drought and desertification have destroyed vast swathes of land that once provided food and shelter. Perhaps more devastating though is the estimated two - four million birds that die each year as they run the gauntlet of hunters during their journey across the Mediterranean. This is particularly harrowing in Malta where turtle doves are shot in significant numbers despite being listed as an endangered species. Shooting birds during their migratory period means there is little chance for declining populations to recover and no doubt countless numbers of juvenile birds are killed before they have a chance to breed.
Photo credit: Les Bunyan
The more I’ve read on the current and dire status of the turtle dove, the more inevitable extinction in my lifetime looks. However, there is hope on the horizon in the form of Operation Turtle Dove. A working partnership between the RSPB and other conservation organisations, Operation Turtle Dove supports a threefold move both in the UK and abroad to reverse the decline of these shy birds. This includes research into food resources and breeding success, working with farmers and landowners to provide dove friendly habitats and tracking selected birds to better understand migratory routes and staging points.
Photo credit: Andy Hay
In spring, RSPB Titchwell Marsh reserve becomes a regular refuelling and stop off point for many species of migratory birds including turtle doves. They are attracted to the area around Titchwell’s car park where scrub and hedgerow conditions are just right and they are able to feed on split grain found on the concrete pads. Each year bird lovers stand at the edge of the scrub hoping to catch a glimpse of this increasingly scarce summer nomad and this spring, expectations rose as reports of first one turtle dove, then two and then four were radioed in. Turtle doves are well known for their apparent affection for their mate and our pairs did not disappoint. Obvious courtship displays and nesting behaviour ensued and soon the far corner of the car park became a focal point for visitors. Scope sights were set, cameras clicked and anticipation built. Finally patience was rewarded as one pairing produced a successful brood and by mid July two fledgling turtle doves were ready to leave the nest.
The parents will remain here a little longer and are a pleasure to watch. Their distinctive flight pattern is elegant and seemingly effortless as if to reflect the warm, lazy summer days they remind me of. It seems surreal that a bird so often heard in my youth is now considered a rarity and I can’t help but worry about the fate of the young siblings. Nonetheless, I remain hopeful that Operation Turtle Dove will change the fortune of what is perhaps the last of the truly migrant pigeons.
For more information on RSPB Titchwell Marsh visit rspb.org.uk/titchwellmarsh
We spend 90% of net income on conservation, public education and advocacy
The RSPB is a member of BirdLife International. Find out more about the partnership
© The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a registered charity: England and Wales no. 207076, Scotland no. SC037654