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Part 32 - The Turtle Dove

Turtle Dove – streptopilia turtur

Turtle doves aren’t quite in the same league as kites when it comes to making the blood race but the sight – or sound – of one in Kingston would be just as rare an event as was the appearance in May of the red kite. There is no connection of course but as the population of red kites in England continues to grow, that of turtle doves inexorably declines. I’d be very interested to hear from anyone who has encountered this bird hereabouts but my own records include just one individual, calling from the scrubby area above the “scar path” on Kingston Hill in July ten years ago.

In recent years, both the range of turtle doves and the number of breeding pairs has shrunk. They are now confined largely to the southern half of the country, with perhaps as few as 60,000 pairs, less than half the population of forty years ago. Sussex may be better off than most counties for these birds – the only migratory species of pigeon in Britain – but even here numbers are going down. As is so often the case, changes in farming are probably at the root of the decline, with the increased use of herbicides and alterations in the timing and intensity of arable management practices at the heart of it. Put more simply, the birds can no longer find enough weed seed to raise the broods they once did and now produce fewer clutches than before, with fewer eggs in each clutch and fewer birds leaving the nests overall.

As if that isn’t enough, it seems that turtle doves are still shot in huge numbers – and illegally since this practice is now banned by the EU Birds Directive – all over the Mediterranean. I recall being on the tiny Greek island of Antipaxos a few years ago in May when hunters seemed to be blasting at everything, everywhere. Bird corpses were plentiful, with turtle doves all too well-represented.

Some of the other British members of the pigeon and dove family make noises which can be irritating, like that of the collared dove, or almost laughable, like the oddly rising notes of the stock dove. But turtle doves make wonderfully evocative calls that would meet – I’d guess – with almost universal approval, were people lucky enough to hear them. The call is very low and very soft - almost a purring – and quite soporific on a hot summer’s day. Both the English name and the “turtur” pat of the scientific name are imitative of this.

Turtle doves are far more slender than wood pigeons, and have a reddish back. The most noticeable feature in flight is the tail – which is dark with a clear white rim. Let’s hope they’re not gone forever from this area.

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