This year, RSPB England has chosen the Turtle Dove as our ‘Bird of the Year,’ thanks to the huge efforts that have gone into protecting these iconic birds in England and across the globe in 2021. RSPB England’s Sara Humphrey explains why they are so special… 

For many, Christmas is a time for carols and decorations, cards and wrapping paper but have you ever looked closely at the birds that feature in these traditions? The carol ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ contains plenty of bird references; from grey partridges to the more surprising yellowhammer, according to naturalist and writer Stephen Moss. For me though, it’s always the two turtle doves really stand out. 

In literature and art worldwide, turtle doves are often used as a symbol of love and loyalty but sadly a pair of turtle doves are nowhere near as common now as they were when wordsmiths like Shakespeare or Frank Sinatra celebrated them in verse. In 1970, there were 100 turtle doves for every two found in England today.  

Winter may seem a strange time to be focussing on our smallest UK doves, which are migratory and are currently in sunny sub-Saharan Africa as I write. Yet this summer has been a big year for people working together to protect this threatened species right across the world and that deserves some celebration, which is why we have chosen turtle doves as our RSPB England Bird of the Year 

Huge global efforts to help this species include new national surveys in the UK and international collaboration to make migration routes much safer for these beloved birds, but first, let’s look at how we got here… 


Since 1970, turtle doves have suffered a huge population decline across the UK and Europe. Changes to farming methods resulting in a lack of food availability and loss of nesting habitat are just a few of the issues they face during breeding season in the UK. 

By 1995, over 95% of these birds had disappeared from our countryside. Since its first publication, in 1996, they have featured on Red List for UK Birds of Conservation Concern and are also classed as vulnerable to global extinction  by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) 

In 2012, Operation Turtle Dove was launched to help save turtle doves in England through habitat creation, monitoring and research. Project partners include the RSPB, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, Fair to Nature and Natural England. 

In 2015, an EU LIFE+ funded project to develop an International Species Action Plan for the turtle dove began.  

In 2017, Operation Turtle Dove created Turtle Dove Friendly Zones, where dedicated conservation advisors started helping farmers, landowners and communities to create better nesting and feeding habitat for breeding turtle doves across Southern and Eastern England.  

In 2018, after three years of challenging work, collaboration and cooperation, the International Species Action Plan was officially launched and adopted by the European Commission and the UN’s Convention on Migratory Species and as a result...  

Between 2018 to 2020 there was a significant drop in turtle dove hunting in France, which fell by 92%  

In 2020, some Spanish regions also committed to reducing hunting pressure to help protect these migratory birds. 

Now it is time to look at what we have achieved in 2021! 

The National Turtle Dove Survey  

Across England, over 900 volunteers rose early in the summer to spend two warm, bright mornings walking around carefully selected sites. They were tracking purring turtle doves in farmlands and woodlands as part of first ever National Turtle Dove survey in the UK. Together, volunteers surveyed over 1600 1km squares, listening out for the evocative calls of these hard to spot and dainty doves, to help create a comprehensive map of breeding locations. The data flooded in and is still being complied but thanks to the huge efforts of hundreds of individuals, ornithological societies, and partners, we will now know where to focus our UK conservation efforts to help protect the remaining breeding birds. 

Through Operation Turtle Dove, the RSPB has already worked with hundreds of fantastic farmers, landowners, organisations, and communities who are doing their bit for their local turtle doves, providing feeding, drinking, and nesting opportunities for these threatened breeding birds. The work these communities have been doing is already starting to show positive results, particularly in population strongholds such as Kent.  

Global hope as hunting pressures fall  

The reasons behind turtle dove declines in the UK and across Europe are now well understood. To give us a strong chance of their population recovering, we know we need to do two things. Provide suitable breeding season habitat and address unsustainable levels of hunting on migration routes. Which is why Operation Turtle Dove has been working with partners to help implement both these elements of the Action Plan. 

To make the Action Plan a reality, conservation groups and hunting organisations worked together with national and regional governments and the European Commission. The result was a complete ban on turtle dove hunting for the 2021 season in France, Spain and Portugal.  

The bans may have saved close to million turtle doves this year, safeguarding the breeding populations bird in France, Spain and Portugal. It has also provided safe passage for UK and North West European turtle doves, all of which migrate through those three countries on their way to Africa.  

This 2021 turtle dove hunting ban has been shortlisted in the Birders’ Choice Awards 2021 for best Birding news of 2021 (alongside plenty of other RSPB conservation successes!) Voting for the awards closes on December 31st, 2021.  

Looking forward to 2022 

With the success of our UK turtle doves making safe passage to Africa and back, now is the time to really ramp up our conservation efforts in the UK. We need to create the landscapes and habitats for these returning turtle doves to breed and thrive in for future years. If you know of a farmer or landowner who has turtle doves visiting in spring and summer, please encourage them to contact our dedicated team of Turtle Dove advisors for advice on how to create better habitat for these birds. Our advisors have been working with hundreds of farmers and landowners since 2017, focussing on ‘Turtle Dove Friendly Zones’ across Southern and Eastern England, but we know there is plenty more that can be done next season too!  

Even if you don’t live in one of our Turtle Dove Friendly Zones, you can help by donating to our new Red List Appeal. The work we do for turtle doves benefits a whole host of other Red Listed birds too, including linnet, yellowhammer, grey partridge, and yellow wagtail. The Red List Appeal will help us to fund vital conservation work for some of UK’s most threatened bird species, including our iconic, purring turtle doves.  

Image credits: Ben Andrew