BTO: So what are turtle doves doing on our Christmas cards?

Turtle dove (Picture: Mike Weston/BTO)
Turtle dove (Picture: Mike Weston/BTO)
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There are several bird species associated with Christmas, from pillar-box red robins to the ill-fated turkey, but the turtle dove must be the most incongruous, writes Graham Appleton.

By the start of advent, any self-respecting turtle dove should be south of the Sahara, in Mali or Senegal, not posing in the snow for an artist painting a wintry scene for a Christmas card or calendar. Take a look at the photograph, right, and you will be able to tut knowingly if you see one depicted as a character in the Twelve Days of Christmas. The key identification features are the stripes on the neck and the russet wings.

Turtle doves are summer migrants, returning to this country each spring to breed. This is a species in crisis, with an estimated decline of 93 per cent since 1967, equating to losing 13 out of every 14 pairs breeding in England 45 years ago. According to the map in Bird Atlas 2007-11, the BTO’s latest publication, Suffolk is just about the best county in which to see one. You may have heard a purring male on a warm summer’s evening and hopefully he will be back next May – but there really is no guarantee. Life seems to be tough for turtle doves, even more so than for most farmland birds and summer migrants. There seems to be a shortage of the shoots and seeds that they need and their breeding season has contracted.

Turtle doves escape from Suffolk in August and early September, heading south through Spain and Portugal, before crossing the Mediterranean Sea and then the Sahara desert. One of the concerns is that hunting in southern Europe may be adding to the woes of the species but most researchers suggest that the main reason for the decline in numbers is the efficient way we produce food these days, with little space for wild flowers such as fumitory. The further halving in numbers between 2012 and 2013 may well be associated with drought conditions in Spain in the late summer of 2012.

Having been very dismissive of the turtle doves that appear on Christmas cards, there is just a small chance that life may start to imitate art. There were a very small number of winter records for the species during the Bird Atlas 2007-11 survey, with birds at least attempting to make it through the winter by taking advantage of the food that is supplied at feeding stations. The additional seed that is supplied in this way is used by migrant birds too, particularly newly-arrived adults in the spring and late-departing juveniles in the autumn. A few of the BTO’s luckiest Garden BirdWatchers have sent in some great pictures from their gardens. Having lost the species from our village, I am really quite jealous.