Operation Turtle Dove


I would imagine that most of us have heard of the Passenger Pigeon – a once very common species that was forced to extinction by man in a very short space of time. The Turtle Dove could be the European equivalent of this if we do not step up to do something about it NOW. We are not just facing potential extinction on a local level for this beautiful dove, but there is a real threat of global extinction.  The following press release from the RSPB is vital reading:

RSPB Press Release (10th May 2012)

Conservationists are embarking on an urgent mission to save one of the UK’s most threatened birds from extinction.

Operation Turtle Dove (www.operationturtledove.org) launched today (Thursday May 10) by the RSPB, leading sustainable farming specialists Conservation Grade and Pensthorpe Conservation Trust in Norfolk, is a three-year project to reverse the decline of one of England’s best-loved farmland birds.

From The Bible to the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare, the turtle dove is well known in literature and folklore as a symbol of love and devotion.  But numbers have fallen dramatically in recent years and there now just nine birds for every 100 there were in the 1970s.  Once widespread across much of England and Wales, the species has been lost from many areas. It has remaining strongholds in East Anglia and south-east England.

The cause of the population crash is not fully understood. However the birds’ diet consists almost entirely of small seeds from wild plants which grow in crops and changes in farming practices mean these plants are now scarce in our countryside.

The project’s partners will work with farmers in turtle dove hotspots to establish plots of seed-rich plants on their land. Scientists from the RSPB will work alongside Conservation Grade’s sustainable farming experts and Pensthorpe’s aviculturalists to measure the impact on the birds’ diet and breeding success.

Simon Tonkin, RSPB farmland bird advisor, said: “Turtle doves are really struggling. After many years of decline we are facing the very real possibility of losing this beautiful bird from the UK.

“This new project will build on a lot of positive work which has already been done by farmers and conservationists. As well as putting in place measures which will bring back some of wild plants which farmland birds like the turtle dove rely on, we need a better understanding of the causes of this devastating decline.”

Tim Nevard, executive director of Conservation Grade and a Pensthorpe trustee, said the key to saving the turtle dove across Europe, and in England in particular, is to ensure the right nesting and foraging habitats are provided on farms.

He said: “Conservation Grade combines first-class farmland wildlife conservation with the best sustainable agriculture production standards, and so is ideally placed to develop the right habitats to ensure the survival of turtle doves.

“We have captive turtle doves at Pensthorpe which we will use to trial a number of seed mixtures to identify the most palatable and nutritious options – from breeding to fledging and beyond – so that the right choices about forage habitat creation can be made.

“We will be working closely with Natural England, our nationwide farmer network and commercial partners to encourage widespread uptake of these habitats.”

Other factors may be contributing to the decline of the turtle dove, including illegal hunting in the Mediterranean as the species makes its annual migration, agricultural changes in the African wintering grounds and the avian disease trichomoniasis which is common in pigeons and doves.

Simon Tonkin added: “The story of the turtle dove in Europe is unsettlingly similar to that of the passenger pigeon in North America.

“A once common and widespread bird, the passenger pigeon was driven to extinction 100 years ago as a result of hunting and habitat loss.  We must not let a tragedy like this happen in our countryside.”

Turtle Dove Heroes:

Don’t forget that you can also help the Turtle Dove by supporting the irrepressible Jonny ‘the metal’  Rankin and his team (Rob ‘the nose’, Lee ‘the ears’ & Mal the ‘muscle’) who are bird racing this weekend to help raise funds for this project: http://www.justgiving.com/bigbirdrace/




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About the author

I'm a birder and twitcher with a general interest in natural history (dragonflies, butterflies and orchids in particular) but most of all I am a passionate conservationist with a particular affiliation to Turkey. Having worked as a Ranger/Naturalist at a range of nature reserves throught the UK I now work as a freelance ecologist and writer.


  1. Just returned from a conservation trip to Cyprus. You cannot walk in a rural/or conservation areas without being surrounded by hundreds of empty shotgun cartridges.
    It may well be certain habitat loss here is contributory but the hunting both in and out of season in the Mediterranean must be having more of an impact.
    It is shocking to witness what is going on in this ‘EU country’….

  2. Simon says:

    Hi Josh – very much an issue, but the issues are multivariate and also remember “our” Turtle Doves are not passing through Cyprus or Malta but France, Spain and Morocco (as far as we know!). The problem associated with the 91% decline since 1970 in the UK seems to be clearly linked to a collapse in breeding productivity. In the 60s they were having up to four broods and from the 90s one, maybe two broods this coincided with a switch in food from more natural food sources of arable plant seeds to cereals and other grains like rape seed. This has indicated a great reduction in the ‘natural’ seed sources these birds would normally utilise and these would be available throughout the summer period as opposed to one very small window of opportunity.
    It is also likely that the birds face increasing pressures on their wintering grounds to land use change and agricultural intensification. Intensive grazing and irrigation could be reducing resources for the species on their wintering grounds further compounding the problem.

    We need to quantify the scale and impact of legal and illegal hunting, both in Europe and elsewhere, and provide information that will inform a review and update of the European Commission Management Plan for European Turtle Dove.
    We will carry out this work by establishing collaborations with partners across the flyway, representing a unique and truly coordinated approach to address Turtle Dove conservation through Operation Turtle Dove.

    Dont forget to report your sightings of Turtle Doves to turtledove@rspb.org.uk

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