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European Turtle Dove – From Symbol Of Eternal Love To The Next Passenger Pigeon?
European turtle dove

European Turtle Dove – From Symbol Of Eternal Love To The Next Passenger Pigeon?

Although the image for most of the turtle dove might be that of Christmas, with your true love gifting you a pair of these beautiful doves, they are in fact only a winter visitor to sub-Saharan Africa and spend some of spring, all summer and early autumn on their breeding grounds further north.

Everything you need to know about the European turtle dove:

The soft purring ‘turr turr turr’ of the European turtle dove (Streptopelia turtur) is one of the most beautiful sounds associated with the onset of spring, as iconic as the almost cuckoo-clock regularity of Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) or melodic outpouring of European Nightingale (Luscinia megarhyncos).

Despite the latin name of ‘turtur’ and the more than passing resemblance of the lesser coverts of the rich patterning on a sea turtle, the latin and English name though have no connection to the sea-dwelling reptile. The ‘turtle of the English name originates in the latin ‘turtur’, which is an alliteration of the ‘soft’ tur tur’ of the song. This was adopted in Old English to mean ‘turtla’ for a male turtle dove and ‘turtle’ for a female turtle dove. The root of the latin name when broken down is ‘strepto’ for dove and ‘peleaia’ for collared.

Their instantly recognizable song used to echo throughout the lowland woodland, heathland and farmland mosaic of Europe, to the cultivated areas with wide open spaces of North Africa, the Middle East and Asia Minor. However, much of that landscape, especially in parts of Western Europe, has sadly fallen silent from this most enigmatic of doves.

European turtle dove aspects

An adult turtle dove on spring migration in Kazakhstan (Photo by Sean Minns)

They are the only long-distance migrant species of dove within their range, present from April to September, with most present between May and August in their summer range, before heading south to winter in sub-Saharan Africa between October and March.

The decline of this species in the last 60 years, especially in industrialized countries of Western Europe has been due to a combination of change in land use, especially the removal of wooded grassland pasture and hedgerows, overuse of herbicides and pesticides, pollution and hunting.

This has resulted in a loss of habitat and food sources and a reduced breeding season which have seen moderate declines across the range, but up to a 98% decline in breeding birds from the type locality of the UK where the population fell from 250,000 breeding birds in the 1960’s in the UK to just 3600 territories in 2016.

1. Quick Facts

  • Lifespan: Up to 10 years
  • Weight: 100-156 grams
  • Length: 26-28 cm (10-11 in)
  • Wingspan: 45-53 cm (18-21 in)

2. Habitat

On their summering grounds they tend to favour open country, such as lowland open deciduous woodland, hedgerows, heaths, copses and scattered trees within grassland with a rich undergrowth and scrub. They can also be found in gardens, parks and palm groves, steppe grassland and semi-desert areas and a much wider range of habitats on migration in spring and autumn. They winter in dry savannah and farmland edge in their wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa.

European turtle dove habitat
Field edge strip in Suffolk UK planted with species attractive to turtle dove (Photo by Sean Minns)

They are especially associated with feeding in agricultural areas and actively forage along the edges of fields, hedgerows, meadows, pastures, cover belts or other cultivated areas or areas of wild grasses.

3. Diet

This herbivorous species is well known for relying on the grains and seeds of cereal cops and wild grasses. However, they will also forage on the ground for fallen berries and fruits to supplement their main diet and, being opportunistic feeders, they have also been known to feed on worms, insects, spiders, snails or fungi.

European turtle dove diet

4. Behaviour And Breeding

They are a largely a shy diurnal species, active by day and usually remaining within thick cover unless feeding on the ground or drinking at water sources. They will however perch out in the open to establish their territory, on dead tree limbs or even on telegraph poles or wires either to sing or perform their display flights.

The display, is a brief, but rather spectacular series of undulating wing movements during a high and circling flight, with a downward flick of the wings creating a whipcrack sound. This is in almost total contrast to their otherwise quite shy behavior. The nuptial display helps to solidify a strong pair bond which is usually for life.

European turtle dove pair
Turtle dove pair in Suffolk, England (Photo by John Richardson)

The pair builds their nest with a variety of twigs and sticks in a tree, hedge or shrub, usually several metres off the ground. The female usually lays two-three eggs per clutch, and the pair take it in turns to incubate the eggs for roughly two weeks.

The chicks are fed by both the adults and fledge when they are around three weeks old. They are capable of relaying a second clutch if the first is lost or predated. Usually only one brood is raised, but if the weather and food source is plentiful enough. they can raise a second brood.

Outside of the breeding season they are also quite gregarious when feeding, especially at prolific food sources, often associating with other dove and pigeon species when feeding. They will often form large post-breeding flocks prior to migration or during migration.

5. Identification

Plumage

For such a colorful bird they are surprisingly camouflaged amongst the light-green spring colors of the trees or shrubs they nest in or use for cover. There are four races, but the differences in plumage are really negligible.

Adult

The most notable feature of an adult is the rusty orange- brown scapulars and lesser wing-coverts with dark centers to the feathers on the wing resembling the tortoiseshell coloring of a sea-turtle shell. The remainder of the wing consists of long dark brown primaries and outer secondary and light bluish-grey inner secondary, primary covert, alula and edges of the greater and median coverts.

The mantle is light brown and contrasts with the gorgeous light blue-grey nape and forehead contrast with the blush pink cheeks, throat and breast. The obvious black and white striped neck patch stands out against the pink blush neck sides. The white underbelly and undertail coverts meet are separated from the pinkish upper breast by a buffy area of feathering.

European turtle dove adult
Adult turtle dove

The bright orange eye is set in a reddish-pink eye-ring, and along with the bright pink feet the bare parts stand out compared to the more subtle plumage features and rather dull black bill. Only when they burst forth from cover with an obvious wing-clatter can you see the rather long-winged darker primaries and outer secondary, contrasting with the bluish-grey center panel of the wing and inner secondary, as well as the orange-brown scapulars and lesser wing-coverts.

The quite short tail has three colors blending together, starting with the narrow white tail sides and outermost part of the tail, blending into the dark blackish inner border and finally the bluish-grey at the base of the tail feathers and brownish-grey rump.

Juvenile

The juvenile is a drabber version of the adult bird with no neck patch, duller eye color and eye-ring, buffy mantle, buff- tipped coverts with less obvious dark centers, buff edged primaries and secondary. The tail pattern is also less striking and the breast feathers not as bright as the adult being rather pale buff-pink and the greyish head and nape are more subdued than the bright adult plumage. The undertail-coverts and belly are as with the adult still white. During the first autumn and winter period it slowly acquires the brighter adult-type plumage.

Juvenile European turtle dove
Juvenile turtle dove, Suffolk, England (Photo by Barry Woodhouse)

Voice

As has already been described, the song is a very distinctive repeated hard purring ‘turrrr, turrrr, turrrr’. There is also a distinctive wing-clatter on take-off.

6. Interactions With Humans And The Environment

The turtle dove is by nature is rather shy of humans, perhaps due to the hunting of this species for 1000’s of years throughout its range. Turtle doves can be found in Egyptian Reliefs from 4500 years ago showing them being trapped in nets. The species has continued to be traditionally hunted across much of its range as a food source either with slingshots, guns, nets or even lime sticks.

It has never been widely domesticated in the same way that Rock Dove (Columba livia) or other species have for food, sport or as pets.

When the species was plentiful hunting had little impact on their numbers. However, during the latter part of the 20th Century, mans’ effects on the species began to become more pressing and declines accelerated perhaps more than any other farmland bird.

The changes in land use and consequent destruction of habitat through more intensive farming has reduced the traditional foraging areas and food sources, in turn narrowing the window of opportunity for breeding and breeding success. Moreover, an increased use of pesticides and herbicides, drought within their wintering rage of the Sahel and increased hunting pressure and hunters due to an increasing human population have all contributed to the rapid decline of this species in the later 20th and early 21st century across much of its range.

Turtle dove illegal hunting
Illegally shot turtle dove on migration (BirdLife Malta)

Since 2009 the European turtle dove has been protected from illegal hunting by the European Bird Directive 2009/147/EC. However, many hunters in France, Spain and Malta among other countries have continued to hunt these birds despite the protection and until recently the European Parliament has done little to action this protection. However, in July 2019 the European Union launched legal action against France and Spain, aimed to help bolster protection of the European turtle dove.

The European Commission announced that both countries had not made adequate efforts to protect the birds from habitat loss and hunting during their migration. Both countries were issued with a letter from Brussels warning of breaches of the wild bird conservation directive, the first step in a legal process that could end with fines being issued by the European Court of Justice. It remains to be seen whether this action helps turn the tide for this species.

Without genuine action by EU member states, (as well as other countries in Africa, The Middle East and Central Asia on their migration route) to enforce the legal protections the future of the species looks bleak. Without concerted conservation efforts to restore their habitat, improve abundance of food sources, reinstate traditional farming practise, remove pesticides and herbicides, as well as bring about drought prevention in the wintering grounds of the Sahel and more rationalised hunting for food only during migration the species will likely continue to decline at an alarming rate.

10. Conservation Initiatives

With such large declines in the population in the last 40 years, this species has become the focus of conservation research and efforts in Europe. Within the UK, Operation Turtle Dove launched in 2012 has brought together four agencies: The Royal Society for the Projection of Birds (RSPB), Conservation Grade, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and Natural England with the aim to reverse the decline of the turtle dove in the UK.

The initial research in the UK highlighted that reduced productivity associated with food shortages on their breeding grounds was the main cause of population decline there. Later research was focused on seeing whether the provision of seed plots on farmland could increase the breeding success of turtle Doves through the trialling of various sources of seed food on those plots. This was combined with surveys to determine whether turtle doves were disappearing from certain habitats or geographic areas and the monitoring of nesting productivity and foraging habitat selection of turtle doves on farmland. This research helped to inform a model and action plan for conservation of the species in the UK.

European turtle dove conservation
Francesco a satellite-tagged turtle dove in Malta 2017 (Photo by Timmy Micallef, BirdLife Malta)

Since 2014 the RSPB has satellite-tagged British-born turtle doves to ascertain their migration routes, as well as key stopover areas and foraging and staging areas on the migration and wintering grounds. The RSPB also backed an academic project to research the disease trichomoniasis as a potential cause of decline both in breeding adults and juveniles, both on the breeding grounds and in wintering areas.

In the wider European context, an EU LIFE+ funded project was started in 2015 to develop an International Species Action Plan for the turtle dove. Through the collaborative actions and co-operation of more than 200 scientific experts from 50 range states over three years of intensive work, a plan to conserve this iconic species was officially launched in May 2018.

European turtle dove male
Male turtle dove on display perch, Suffolk, England ( Photo by John Richardson)

The Action Plan details a set of conservation actions to tackle issues including habitat loss, lack of food and the impact of hunting over the period of a decade across the species’ European and African range. The plan concentrated on maintaining and increasing good quality habitats with available and accessible water and food on the breeding grounds, as well as migration stopovers and wintering areas. It also stressed a stop to Illegal killing in the European Union and reduction elsewhere, with hunting across the range to continue, but at sustainable levels.

As well as Operation turtle dove in the UK, efforts are being made in various EU nations such as France, Germany and The Netherlands to monitor various aspects of turtle dove conservation.

In the Netherlands – Operatie zomertortel has researched the effectiveness of supplementary food for turtle doves. In Germany, scientists have been fitting turtle doves with special tracking devices to learn more about their migratory journeys. In France researchers from the Office National de la Chasse et de la Faune Sauvage have also been tracking the migratory routes of turtle dove in France. In Malta researchers from BirdLife Malta are also carrying out work on their migration routes by satellite-tagging of turtle doves.

11. In Culture And History

There are very few species that have such a rich cultural history as the turtle dove, which from the earliest of civilisations in Europe, Africa and Asia has been one of the few birds to be woven into the religious worship, poetry, songs and paintings for several millennia.

In Early Mythology And The Bible

References to turtle dove litter Greek and Roman mythology, as well as the Bible and over the millennia their strong pair bond, seemingly affectionate preening and soft cooing has come to embody the ideal of devotion, love, faith and trust in religion.

In Greek mythology turtle doves pulled the gold chariot of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and this was perhaps the beginning of this species being synonymous with the idea of devotional love. The Roman and Pagan goddess of trust and faith Fides (from where we originate fidelity) was represented by a turtle dove which she held in her hands in artistic depictions of the time.

European turtle dove culture
Aphrodite’s chariot being pulled by doves (ClipArt ETC)

According to the 3rd century Roman author Claudius Aelianus in his famous work ‘De Natura Animalium’ (On the nature of animals) the Greek goddess of the harvest Demeter, considered the turtle dove sacred, perhaps because of its close association with the harvesting of grain and the bird usually leaving after the harvest.

But it wasn’t just the Greeks and Romans who revered the turtle dove, and there were references to the turtle dove in both the old and new testament with significance for both Christianity and Judaism.

Perhaps the most famous reference in the Old Testament is to the Turtle in verse 2:12 of the Song of Solomon “The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of the birds is come and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land” thus heralding the onset of spring in what is now the modern-day Middle East. Later in the New Testament, a pair of turtle doves are mentioned in Luke 2:24, where a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons is offered as a sacrifice when Christ is presented at the Temple, where he is inducted into Judaism.

In Poetry And Songs

Coming out of the Dark Ages and early Medieval Period, as the first fumbling’s of modern English literature began to emerge, so the theme of the faithfulness and devotional love of the turtle dove came to the fore in the 14th Century writings of Thomas Chaucer. In ‘The Parliament of Fowls’ he wrote of the ‘Wedded turtle dove with her heart true’, marrying the idea of fidelity with love as seen in the lifetime pair bonding of these birds.

As the late Middle Ages fed into the Renaissance of the 15th and 16th Century, this ideal of the fidelity and love of the turtle dove, found its way into paintings, poetry and plays.

The idealized love life of the turtle dove was taken to the extreme in renaissance Italy, with the belief that if one partner died they would mourn that mate until their own death and never take another partner. Botticelli immortalized this sentiment in the posthumous portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici the co-ruler of the powerful Florentine State posed with a turtle dove. The dove was said to represent the fidelity of his betrothed love through her mourning his death even when not married.

European turtle dove poetry
Turtle dove detail painted by Botticelli ‘s portrait of Giuiliano de’Medici

The poets of the Elizabethan period, influenced heavily by the writings of Italian renaissance writers continued the theme of the turtle dove representing the ideal of perfect marriage and fulfilled love. This can be seen in several of the plays and poems of Shakespeare, with perhaps the greatest idealism of eternal love to be found in his poem The Phoenix and the Turtle’. In this poem the Phoenix represents beauty personified and the turtle dove fidelity and the two are joined in the perfect marriage of truth and beauty, with their ideal union lamented after their death.

Turtle doves have appeared in many songs subsequently and been found in an eclectic collection of music from Christian ‘shaker hymns’ to ‘African-American spirituals in the 18th and 19th Century to 1950’s jazz standards, and even the modern day pop of Madonna.

Perhaps most famously in the modern era, two turtle doves are given as a love token to an unknown true love, on the second day of the 12 Days of Xmas. Although first committed to paper in the late 18th Century in English as a rhyme, and likely originating in France much earlier on, it has gone on to be perhaps one of the most recorded songs on the planet. Some sources relate that the two doves may also represent the old and new testament of the Bible.

Two turtle doves from 12 Days of Xmas (Deck The Holiday’s Blogspot)

The ideal of turtle doves continued not only in songs and lyrics into the modern age as a symbol of love and fidelity, but continued in poetry through writers such as Edgar Allen Poe in his poem The Bells in the 19th Century to the modern day 21st century poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy in her modern retelling of the 12 Days of Xmas and hundreds of amateur poets in-between times.

Ironically Carol Ann Duffy removes the traditional role of the turtle dove as a sign of fidelity and love from the original 12 Days of Xmas and instead in her modern version, the 12 Days of Xmas (2009) laments the decline of this once great symbol of fidelity and love through the modern-day threats of habitat loss, declining food sources and drought in their wintering area in the Sahel:

“Two turtle doves, that Shakespeare loved – turr turr, turr turr – endangered now by herbicide, the chopping down of where they hide – turr turr, turr turr – hawthorn thickets, hedgerows, woodland. Summer’s music fainter, farther… the spreading drought of the Sahara. “

It is to be hoped that future writers can once again begin to appreciate the subtle visual beauty, vocal charms and reinstate the bird as a symbol of peace, hope, fidelity and love through conservation measures throughout the range of the species.

Acknowledgements: I’d like to thank Barry Woodhouse, John Richardson and Nathaniel Attard at BirdLife Malta for their photographs and their expertise when writing this article.

Further information on the conservation and status of this species can be found at the following websites: