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.