BTO: Turtle dove numbers are in decline

Turtle Dove - Streptopelia turtur. pICTURE: EDMUND FELLOWES/British Trust for Ornithology
Turtle Dove - Streptopelia turtur. pICTURE: EDMUND FELLOWES/British Trust for Ornithology
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One of our sounds of summer is fast disappearing from the Suffolk countryside, a pattern that is being repeated across much of south-east England.

That sound is the gentle purring of the turtle dove, the soft notes once familiar to those who spent their summer days in the farmland habitats favoured by this summer visitor. The breeding population of this attractive little dove has declined by 95% since 1967 (when regular monitoring work first started) and its breeding range within Britain has halved over a similar period. Suffolk is rapidly becoming one of the turtle dove’s last remaining strongholds, but even here the species is being lost from many former haunts.

The turtle dove is one of the last of our summer migrants to arrive, with most birds reaching us during early May, before pairs establish themselves at sites with scrubby cover: such as orchards, overgrown hedgerows and commons. There is a very close link between the distribution of turtle doves and their favoured food, fumitory, a plant that grows in arable fields and on waste ground. As with other doves the nest is a rather simple affair, a fragile platform of twigs onto which the female deposits two eggs.

The decline in our turtle dove population is not a localised phenomenon. More widely across Europe we have seen numbers fall by nearly 75% since 1980 and the species has just been classified as ‘Vulnerable’ on the European Red List for birds. The Red List assesses the conservation status and extinction risk for individual species, with ‘Vulnerable’ being one of three categories denoting a threatened status.

The reasons behind the decline in turtle dove populations are unclear, and may well be complex. After all, this is a bird that winters in West Africa and migrates across the Mediterranean to breed in Europe. Changing farming practices, habitat loss on its wintering grounds and changes in hunting pressure – turtle dove is a quarry species in many European countries – may all have a role to play in shaping numbers. Additional pressure may come from the disease trichomonosis, which has been seen in the species in recent years.

The sound of a calling turtle dove on a still summer evening is becoming increasingly poignant, a reminder of the losses that we are experiencing within our changing countryside. The change in fortunes of the turtle dove contrast, over the longer term at least, with those of the collared dove – a close relative. While the turtle dove has declined, the collared dove has increased, extending its breeding range across Europe in just a few short decades. Things change, but we need to understand why if we are to maintain the biological diversity that is important to our own existence.

The information collected by birdwatchers and used to monitor changing fortunes will continue to be a key part of this process.