Turtle dove numbers take a dive

THANKS to a verse in a nonsense carol, the turtle dove is a celebrity at this time of year.

Turtle dove numbers take a dive

However, all is not well with this Christmas bird.

Its numbers in Europe have fallen by 62% since 1980 and the UK population is halving every six years.

As summer temperatures rise with global warming, the dove’s breeding area should be expanding northwards, but the opposite is happening; its summer range is shrinking.

An action plan, which the British Ecological Society and the Société Française d’Ecologie hope will arrest the slide towards extinction, is about to be launched.

This elegant grey and orange-brown dove has a striped back and a white patch on each side of the neck.

It’s the most travelled member of the pigeon family and the only European dove to migrate across the Sahara; the winter is spent in Central Africa from Senegal to Ethiopia.

Long distance travel is unusual in exclusively graniferous birds but the turtle dove is an exception, undertaking a 4,000km round trip annually.

It’s one of the last migrants to arrive in Europe in spring.

A few stragglers venture as far as Ireland, and pairs have nested here occasionally.

The nearest substantial population is in England, where turtle doves breed mostly southeast of a line from Yorkshire to the Severn.

The Latin writers referred to the ‘turtur’; the dove’s purring ‘turr-turr-turr’ song almost certainly inspired the name.

The bird has no association with turtles or other reptiles but it has ancient religious links.

‘The time of the singing birds is come and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land’ declares the Song of Solomon, the biblical collection of love poems.

Noah sent a dove out of the Ark to report on the state of the flood. When it returned with a leaf in its mouth, Noah knew that the waters had subsided and so the dove became the symbol of peace.

The 16th Century ‘12-days of Christmas’ cumulative song may allude to Catholic teachings suppressed in England. By humming it, ‘papists’ could recognise each other in a vocal equivalent of the Masonic handshake.

The two doves of the carol may represent the old and new testaments.

Divine intervention may be needed to save this beleaguered bird in Western Europe.

Little is known about its life in Africa; some of its problems may stem from there.

Much sought after by hunters, doves are slaughtered when migrating through the Mediterranean. The losses there, however, can’t explain the species’ poor breeding performance further north.

Over the last four years, Dr Jenny Dunn of the University of Leeds has been studying turtle dove biology.

She uses radio tracking devices to discover where these secretive birds nest and feed.

The doves, she found, fare best in areas with plenty of scrub and hedgerows over four metres tall. They like the rough border areas of old broad-leaved woods and open patches with ‘weeds’.

Dunn found high levels of a notorious parasite in both adults and nestlings.

Trichomona gallinae, a protozoan which can be lethal, is spread through contaminated food and water.

It led, recently, to a 35per cent decline in UK greenfinches, having been spread through contaminated garden feeders.

When birds are confined to feeding at a limited number of sites, they are particularly vulnerable to infection.

Food availability is also a factor in the dove’s decline. The study revealed a direct link between nesting success and feeding.

Intensive farming has eliminated ‘weeds’, reducing the availability of food plants and invertebrates for chicks.

In their search for food, parents are forced to spend more time away from the nest, leaving their young exposed to danger.

The Countrywide Stewardship scheme, to be launched in 2015, recommends measures farmers and gardeners can take to help turtle doves.

Strategically placed seed plots will provide additional food for the birds and their young.

By planting seeds widely, rather than concentrating them in an area, the risk of parasite infection can be reduced.

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