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

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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

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