Sad tidings for partridges and turtle doves

PARTRIDGES and turtle doves are in rapid decline. This unseasonally bad news emerges from an enormous survey of Britain's bird life involving 20,000 amateur birdwatchers.

Both species appear to be the victims of modern farming techniques, which leave them short of food at certain times of year - and of serious misrepresentation in a Christmas carol.

Partridges are never seen in pear trees, while turtle doves - symbols of love and devotion since the time of Solomon - have nothing to do with Christmas in Britain. At this time of year they are sensibly sunning themselves in Africa's Sahel.

The survey has just been published in The New Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland. Its computer-generated maps reveal huge swings in range and population among dozens of bird species since the last such survey just over 20 years ago. A few species have vanished between the two surveys: the great northern diver, black tern, snowy owl and hoopoe. Others seem certain to depart soon: the red-backed shrike, wryneck and corncrake.

But the news is not all bad. The latest survey, carried out between 1988 and 1991, found 219 bird species breeding in Britain, compared to the 214 disclosed by the previous survey between 1968 and 1972. New arrivals include the red- necked grebe and scarlet rosefinch. In all, there are about 120 million birds breeding in Britain, with the commonest species being the wren, which makes up one tenth of the total.

The number of partridges has plunged by 75 per cent - there are now about 150,000. The turtle dove population has fallen by 60 per cent to about 75,000. They are birds of farmland, now confined to the south-east and east of England. Increased use of herbicides may have killed many of the weed plants whose seeds they eat during the breeding season. Their numbers may also have been affected by drought in their winter home in Africa and by hunters who shoot them during their migration across the Mediterranean.

In contrast, the turtle dove's close relative, the collared dove, has had a population boom. They only began breeding in Britain in 1955 and have since doubled their numbers every year for more than a decade. There are now about 200,000 in Britain, many of them living in the suburban areas and taking food from bird-tables.

The New Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland: 1988-1991; T&A D Poyser; pounds 40.

(Photographs omitted)

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