Nature Studies: The disappearing turtle dove
According to the latest analysis, this legendary bird has only eight years left till extinction. That's far too short a time to appreciated its breathtaking beauty
Michael McCarthy, formerly the Independent’s longstanding Environment Editor, now its Environment Columnist, is one of Britain’s leading writers on the environment and the natural world. He has won a string of awards for his work, including Environment Journalist of the Year (three times) and Specialist Writer of the Year in the British Press Awards in 2001. In 2007 he was awarded the Medal of the RSPB for “Outstanding Services to Conservation,” in 2010 he was awarded the Silver Medal of the Zoological Society of London, and in 2011 the Dilys Breeze Medal of the British Trust for Ornithology. In 2009 McCarthy published Say Goodbye To The Cuckoo (John Murray), a study of Britain’s declining migrant birds.
Wednesday 08 May 2013
It’s a legendary creature, no doubt about that. For centuries, it was seen as the symbol of true love. Its springtime call is celebrated in the Bible. It features in one of our best-known Christmas carols. Yet the turtle dove is declining so rapidly that it may be gone from Britain, the latest analysis suggests, by 2021.
Eight years left: very little time to glimpse one of the best-loved and most beautiful of all our birds, with its rose-pink breast and back of sandy orange, scalloped with black spots. Breathtaking to look at, 40 years ago it was as visible over much of Britain as the ubiquitous wood pigeons are today. Yet the turtle dove’s decline has been so remorseless that it has dropped in numbers, since 1970, by 93 per cent, and in most places where once it was familiar it is now but a memory.
As such, it is merely the worst affected of a whole group of species swiftly vanishing from Britain, our summer migrant birds – the birds which spend the winter in Africa and fly here in the springtime to breed. They are now the most endangered of all our avifauna, with no fewer than eight of our 12 most threatened bird species being African migrants.
The turtle dove leads the way, but the nightingale is close behind, followed by the wood warbler, the spotted and pied flycatchers, the whinchat, the yellow wagtail and the cuckoo, as well as others such as the house martin and the swift. Many of these birds are not only cherished by bird-lovers but have played enormous roles in our culture, yet all are tumbling in numbers.
Four years ago, I examined the troubling phenomenon of our vanishing migrants in a book entitled Say Goodbye To The Cuckoo, and tonight I am looking at it again in a film for Channel 4 News as part of its Green and Pleasant Land series examining the state of the British countryside. And the latest figures make even grimmer reading.
Take the nightingale, the bird which has inspired more poets than any other. It’s a hard species to monitor, and the first figures on its decline were only published by the British Trust for Ornithology in 2008: this suggested that it had dropped in numbers by 60 per cent since 1995. But more recently the BTO has calculated a figure going back to 1970, and this suggests a decline of no less than 91 per cent. Imagine: just since the Beatles broke up, nine out of every 10 nightingales singing in Britain have fallen silent.
The cuckoo, whose two-note call is the most notable sound of our spring, is another bird whose real decline is becoming more apparent. The current BTO headline figure is of a 52 per cent drop in Britain since 1995, but if you go more deeply into the data you find that the decline in England, where it is most severe, is 63 per cent, and the long-term decline in England, since 1970, is 73 per cent: since the Beatles’ demise, three quarters of our cuckoos have gone.
It is the turtle dove, however, to which the most alarming new figures apply. I suggested in Say Goodbye To The Cuckoo that the slopes of decline were so steep that in some cases they would lead to extinction before too long; it now appears that Streptopelia turtur will get there first. A paper in the journal Bird Study, by two RSPB research scientists, Jenny Dunn and Antony Morris, tracks its tumbling fall and predicts: “At the current rate of decline, turtle doves may be lost as a UK breeding bird by 2021.”
Even those who’ve never seen it, know it from “The Twelve Days Of Christmas”: two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.
It was the universal symbol of true love and fidelity from Chaucer, through Shakespeare, to the early years of rock and roll.
Its dreamy purring call is celebrated in the loveliest book of The Bible, The Song of Solomon: “The voice of the turtle is heard in our land.”
It’s a legendary creature, indeed.
But none of that will save it. See it and hear it while you can: there are eight years left, and then it’s Say Goodbye To The Turtle Dove.
Michael McCarthy will be talking about the decline of the turtle dove, the nightingale and the cuckoo on Channel 4 News tonight from 7pm as part of the ‘Green and Pleasant Land’ series
Saviour of the Isle of Arran's lobster population wins £117,000 'environmental Oscar'
Lynx to be reintroduced into wild in Britain after a 1,300-year absence
When did it all start to go downhill for mountain biking?
Have you heard 'the hum'? Mystery of Earth's low droning noise could now be solved
Nazi super cows: British farmer forced to destroy half his murderous herd of bio-engineered Heck cows after they try to kill staff
- 1 Rarest Beanie Baby bought for just £10 at car boot sale could be sold for £62,500 on eBay
- 2 Katie Hopkins and The Sun editor David Dinsmore reported to police for incitement to racial hatred following migrant boat column
- 3 Giorgio Armani criticises the way some gay men dress saying 'a man has to be a man'
- 4 Rebecca Francis accuses Ricky Gervais of using 'influence' to target female hunters after receiving barrage of death threats
- 5 Australian student Tommy Connolly, 23, adopts his pregnant, homeless 17-year-old cousin to give her a chance at 'a better life'
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
Food banks: One million Britons will soon be using them, according to Trussell Trust
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...
£16000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...
£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of Ford's leading Parts Who...
£20000 - £25000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: Do you want to learn ...