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


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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Arts and Entertainment
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>
filmRobert Downey Jr named Hollywood's highest paid actor for second year running
Life and Style
Dale Bolinger arranged to meet the girl via a fetish website
Sign here, please: Magna Carta Island
propertyYours for a cool £4m
Life and Style
The Commonwealth flag flies outside Westminster Abbey in central London
Arts and Entertainment
Struggling actors who scrape a living working in repertory theatres should get paid a 'living wage', Sir Ian McKellen has claimed
Skye McCole Bartusiak's mother said she didn't use drink or drugs
peopleActress was known for role in Mel Gibson film The Patriot
Arts and Entertainment
tvWebsite will allow you to watch all 522 shows on-demand
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Graduate Web Developer

£18000 - £28000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Excellent opportun...

Graduate Database Developer (SQL)

£18000 - £28000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Excellent opportun...

Community / Stakeholder Manager - Solar PV

£50000 - £60000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Senior Marketing Executive (B2B/B2C) - London

£32000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Day In a Page

Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor