When Turtle Doves Visit the UK

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When Turtle Doves Visit the UK

On March 25, 2016, Posted by , in Uncategorized, With No Comments

Turtle doves are summer visitors the UK, and are mainly found in England. These birds are more often heard than seen, and their distinctive, gentle, purring song has long been a characteristic sound of summer.

The name ‘turtle dove’ is not a reference to the tortoiseshell patterning on their plumage, but is a corruption of the French word tourterelle. This is an onomatopoeic description of the song, which is indeed a ‘turrrr turrrr’ sound.

Turtle Doves breed in woods and agricultural areas, building an open nest in a tree or shrub. They feed mainly on the seeds and fruits of weeds and cereals, found mostly on the ground. Like all pigeons and doves, they feed their chicks on ‘crop milk’, a secretion from the crop (an expanded portion of the alimentary tract) of the parent. It’s thought that they may also carry water to their young in their crops. Incidentally, like other pigeons and doves, these birds can drink directly, pumping up water rather than filling their beaks and then tipping their heads back to swallow, like other birds.

For a bird that has been a symbol of devotion for centuries, the poor turtle dove is having a very difficult time. Declining rapidly in numbers in the UK, it is at real risk of disappearing as a breeding species here within the decade. That soothing song, a familiar summer sound just a generation or so ago, is becoming a real rarity.

At the start of the 20th century, they were still apparently increasing in range and numbers, but from the 1970s onwards they declined severely across Europe and disappeared from many places where they had previously been common. Breeding success is low, and the number of breeding attempts per pair halved between the 1960s and the late 1990s: this reduction in reproductive output is sufficient to explain the population decline of UK breeding turtle doves. The problem is that, as yet, we do not know exactly why this is happening.

Even outside the breeding season, there are serious problems. This is the only migratory dove species in Europe, and each year they will make the long journey to and from their wintering grounds in Africa, around the Sahel desert. On the way, many birds will fly over the Mediterranean. In this area, and especially in Malta, there is a long tradition of shooting them in spring, on their way back to their breeding grounds.

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