De­cline in num­bers of Tur­tle Doves across Europe

Wicklow People (West Edition) - - LIFESTYLE -

SINCE Ro­man times, the Tur­tle Dove has been a sym­bol of love, fer­til­ity, de­vo­tion, fi­delity and new life. In mod­ern times, in Cock­ney rhyming slang, the words ‘tur­tle dove’ are used to mean ‘love’. The bird also fea­tures as a fes­tive present in the song and carol ‘Twelve Days Of Christ­mas’: “On the sec­ond day of Christ­mas my true love sent to me two Tur­tle Doves and a Par­tridge in a Pear tree”.

Tur­tle Doves used to be com­mon through­out south­ern main­land Europe. From Europe, their range swept in a broad band across Asia as far as China. The small and dainty bird, only slightly larger than a black­bird, purrs rather than sings and is un­usual among pi­geons and doves in that it mi­grates. It is the only Euro­pean dove to mi­grate across the Sa­hara; its win­ter is spent in Cen­tral Africa from Sene­gal to Ethiopia.

It is one of the last mi­grants to ar­rive in Europe in spring. Ire­land is at the north­ern ex­trem­ity of its range, so the bird is scarce here. A few strag­glers reg­u­larly over­shoot and turn up on our shores in spring, mainly on is­lands and head­lands on the south coast. To date, about twelve birds have been re­ported dur­ing the first half of this year.

A few pairs of Tur­tle Doves have bred in Ire­land in the past. They breed in the south and east of Eng­land and some com­men­ta­tors have pre­dicted that with sum­mer tem­per­a­tures ris­ing as a re­sult of global warm­ing, the dove’s breed­ing area should expand north­wards.

How­ever, the op­po­site is hap­pen­ing. The sum­mer range of Tur­tle Doves is shrink­ing, and the species is now in­cluded on the Red List of con­ser­va­tion con­cern. The pop­u­la­tion in Bri­tain is halv­ing ev­ery six years. Its num­bers in Europe are re­ported to have fallen by 62% since 1980; in Euro­pean Rus­sia, by more than 90% since 1980.

So, what is the prob­lem? Lit­tle is known about the Tur­tle Dove’s life in Africa so it is not known if any of its problems may stem from there. Its problems in Europe are due to changes in agri­cul­tural prac­tice and hunt­ing.

Tur­tle Doves are ex­clu­sively grain-eaters and they nest in ar­eas with plenty of scrub and hedgerows over four me­tres tall. Con­tam­i­na­tion of the grain they feed on and re­moval of hedgerows that they need to nest in are be­lieved to ma­jor con­tribut­ing fac­tors to their de­cline. An­other fac­tor is lack of in­ver­te­brate food for their chicks due to the elim­i­na­tion of the ‘weeds’ that the in­ver­te­brates need to feed on.

Much sought af­ter by hunters, the doves are slaugh­tered when mi­grat­ing through the Mediter­ranean. Across the Mediter­ranean in coun­tries where hunt­ing the bird is le­gal dur­ing a re­stricted pe­riod, there are thought to be roughly 600,000 birds killed il­le­gally an­nu­ally out­side the le­gal pe­riod.

While humanity has made the Euro­pean Tur­tle Dove a sym­bol of love and de­vo­tion our treat­ment of the species is not help­ing to en­sure that it will be around in years to come.

The Euro­pean Tur­tle Dove a sym­bol of love and de­vo­tion.

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