The turtle dove is Britain’s only migratory pigeon or dove.
It is also our smallest native pigeon, weighing between 100 and 180gm, less than half the weight of a wood pigeon.
Turtle doves arrive on their breeding grounds in southern and eastern England at the end of April and early May, returning to their wintering grounds in West Africa in late summer and early autumn.
English turtle doves winter mainly in the semi-arid region of Senegal and Guinea. Birds from eastern European countries winter in Sudan and Ethiopia.
Birds on migration have long been subject to strong hunting pressure as they pass through the Mediterranean countries. Today only Malta has a legal spring shooting season for these doves but they are still shot illegally elsewhere.
However, though Britain’s breeding population has declined by an alarming 91% in the last 10 years, the decrease is thought to be due largely to problems on the wintering and breeding grounds rather than hunting.
Weed seeds are the favoured food of turtle doves in England; increasingly tidy, weed-free farming is almost certainly a major factor in the dove’s decline.
One of the turtle dove’s favourite food plants is fumitory, which favours light, dry soils. A study made 50 years ago showed that fumitory seeds accounted for 30-50% of the bird’s diet.
The turtle dove’s song is a gentle, soporific purring, usually delivered from cover; where the birds are present it can be heard all summer.
Turtle doves have always been rare in both Scotland and Ireland, but they have now largely disappeared from Wales, too, with the bulk of the remaining population in southern and eastern England.
Suffolk and Kent are the top counties for finding these doves.
In the Bible, the Song of Solomon states: “the voice of the turtle is heard in our land”. This is a reference to the purring of turtle doves.
Turtle doves like to nest in thick hedgerows, usually building their simple platform nest rather low and seldom above 3m.
Only two white eggs are laid in each clutch but it was, until recently, usual for the doves to have three nesting attempts each summer.
Today lack of food has led to the doves nesting later, usually only making two breeding attempts a year.
The RSPB’s Operation Turtle Dove is working hard to reverse the dove’s decline in the UK.
In 2014 the RSPB caught a turtle dove in a Suffolk garden and fitted it with a satellite tag. Called Titan, this dove returned again in the summer of 2015, giving unprecedented information about our doves’ migration routes.
Thanks to Titan we know that turtle doves migrate largely at night, covering up to 700km in one flight, and flying at speeds of around 60kph.
Titan was last heard of in Mali in April 2016. He may have died or the battery of his tag may have expired.
The Operation Turtle Dove website gives detailed information on not only identifying turtle doves but creating both nesting and feeding habitat for these birds.
The similar, but larger, oriental turtle dove is a very rare visitor to the UK.