Streptopelia turtur (Linnaeus, 1758)
Family: Columbiformes > Columbidae
The Turtle Dove’s purring song is a quintessential sound of the summer, but one that is getting harder to hear.
This summer visitor arrives in late April, after spending the winter months in West Africa, south of the Sahara. A farmland bird, breeding in mature hedgerows and dense thickets, the Turtle Dove has shown a rapid and steep decline in its numbers and a contraction in its UK breeding range.
Now lost from many former haunts, including many within its East Anglian stronghold, there is every chance of us losing the Turtle Dove as a breeding species.
Select a topic for more facts and statistics about the Turtle Dove
Turtle Dove identification is usually straightforward. The following article may help when identifying Turtle Dove.
Collared Dove is one of our most familiar species, despite only arriving naturally in the country relatively recently, but how can you confidently separate it from the similar, but much rarer, Turtle Dove?
Listen to example recordings of the main vocalisations of Turtle Dove, provided by xeno-canto contributors.
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Status and Trends
Population size and trends and patterns of distribution based on BTO surveys and atlases with data collected by BTO volunteers.
This species can be found on the following statutory and conservation listings and schedules.
The CBC/BBS trend shows severe declines in Turtle Dove abundance, beginning in the late 1970s and continuing steeply to the present. Atlas data show that more than half the 10-km squares occupied in 1968-72 had been lost by 2008-11, with the population withdrawing towards East Anglia and Kent (Balmer et al. 2013). These trends, unless halted or reversed, would bring the species close to extinction in the UK within the next two decades and all breeding records since 2018 should be submitted to the RBBP, following the addition of Turtle Dove to the RBBP species list. There has been decline across Europe since 1980 (PECBMS: PECBMS 2020a>) and the species is now classed by IUCN as globally threatened (Vulnerable).
|UK breeding population||-99% decrease (1967–2020)|
Breeding Turtle Doves are restricted to the eastern half of England as far north as Yorkshire and west to the Severn.
Occupied 10-km squares in UK
|No. occupied in breeding season||623|
|% occupied in breeding season||21|
|No. occupied in winter||16|
|% occupied in winter||0.5|
European Distribution Map
Relative frequency by habitat
The change map illustrates the progressive loss of range in the north, west and southwest of Britain over the last 40 years. The loss in the Home Counties is also notable. The halving of range has been accompanied by a population decline of over 90%.
Change in occupied 10-km squares in the UK
|% change in range in breeding season (1968–72 to 2008–11)||-50.7%|
|% change in range in winter (1981–84 to 2007–11)||+250%|
Turtle Doves are summer visitors, arriving gradually from mid April with reporting tailing off through summer; most birds usually departed by September but occasional birds winter.
Information about movement and migration based on online bird portals (e.g. BirdTrack), Ringing schemes and tracking studies.
An overview of year-round movements for the whole of Europe can be seen on the EuroBirdPortal viewer.
Lifecycle and body size information about Turtle Dove, including statistics on nesting, eggs and lifespan based on BTO ringing and nest recording data.
View number ringed each year in the Online Ringing Report
|Maximum Age from Ringing||11 years 2 months 15 days (set in 1974)|
|Typical Lifespan||2 years with breeding typically at 1 year|
|Juvenile Survival||0.36 (in first year)|
|Wing Length||Adults||178.9±5.2 | Range 171–187mm, N=307|
|Juveniles||168±11 | Range 143-180mm, N=60|
|Males||180.2±4.4 | Range 173–187mm, N=149|
|Females||175.9±4.6 | Range 170–184mm, N=87|
|Body Weight||Adults||157±15.33 | Range 133–181g, N=232|
|Juveniles||140±24.8629 | Range 105–177g, N=55|
|Males||157±14.19 | Range 135–181g, N=94|
|Females||155±15.08 | Range 129–178g, N=70|
Feather measurements and photos on featherbase
|Field Codes||2-letter: TD | 5-letter code: TURDO | Euring: 6870|
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Interpretation and scientific publications about Turtle Dove from BTO scientists.
Causes of change
There is good evidence to support the hypothesis that the primary demographic driver of Turtle Dove declines is a shortened breeding period, which has reduced the number of nesting attempts. This is thought to be driven by reduced food availability due to increased herbicide use, although analyses that test this directly are lacking. Note, however, that data do not permit analyses of variation in annual survival rates, but mortality both on the wintering grounds (due to habitat deterioration) and on migration (particularly through hunting) could be important.
Further information on causes of change
A four-year intensive field study in East Anglia provided good evidence that the role of breeding productivity in the decline of Turtle Doves is likely to be through a reduction in the average number of nesting attempts per pair (Browne & Aebischer 2005). Browne & Aebischer (2003a, 2004, 2005) concluded that Turtle Doves today have a substantially earlier close to the breeding season and consequently produce fewer clutches and young per pair than they did in the 1960s. Reduced food availability due to increased herbicide use and efficacy may make birds more likely to cease breeding earlier than during the 1960s and reduce their number of nesting attempts (Browne & Aebischer 2001, 2002), although this was not specifically tested. Browne & Aebischer (2003a) state that it may be a change in phenology of Turtle Doves and their food species which has resulted in reduced availability of food supplies, although they do not support this with any specific analyses of these two factors. More recent work, using DNA analysis to assess food items consumed by nestlings, found that those in better condition were fed on a higher proportion of natural arable plant seeds rather than seed from anthropogenically grown sources such as brassicas (Dunn et al. 2018).
Loss of quality and quantity of breeding habitat are also thought to contribute to declines. Browne et al. (2004) used long-term CBC data to provide good evidence that breeding density fell in proportion to loss of nesting, rather than feeding, habitat and that changes in Turtle Dove density were positively related to changes in the amount of hedgerow and woodland edge. Dunn & Morris (2012) suggest however that, although established scrub and large hedgerows were important in retaining Turtle Dove territories, it may be foraging habitat that is limiting their distribution. A small sample (15) of fledglings tracked using radio tags were found to remain close to the nest for the first three weeks, and select seed-rich habitats on foraging trips, and heavier birds were more likely to survive, suggesting nearby foraging habitat was important both pre- and post-fledging (Dunn et al. 2016). Recent research has also investigated customized management options which might provide foraging habitat for Turtle Doves (Dunn et al. 2015).
There is good evidence to suggest that the population decline experienced by Turtle Doves breeding in Britain is not due to lower success of individual nesting attempts. Analysis of nest record cards and ringing data for farmland Turtle Doves shows a non-significant increase in productivity per nesting attempt while annual survival has fallen (Siriwardena et al. 2000a, 2000b, Browne et al. 2005) so this may have also contributed to the decline. The demographic trends shown here support the view that nesting success per attempt is not the main driver of population change, with no significant changes identified in any of the measures (see above).
Turtle Dove is a quarry species in many European countries and Vickery et al. (2014) estimate that 2-4 million Turtle Doves are shot annually in southern Europe. Hunting during migration has been cited as another possible cause of the UK decline, although there is little evidence to support this (Browne & Aebischer 2004). A recent study concluded that the current levels of legal hunting in Europe are more than double the sustainable hunting rate (Lormee et al. 2019), but it is not clear how many birds originating from Britain might potentially be affected by hunting. Ring-recovery sample sizes are small and there is only weak evidence suggesting a decrease in annual survival (Siriwardena et al. 2000b). Nevertheless, survival could also have been negatively affected by a reduction in the quality of wintering habitat: this is thought to have contributed to the decline (Marchant et al. 1990) and one recent study has demonstrated a positive correlation between survival rate among breeding adults in France and food supply in West Africa, as measured by cereal production (Eraud et al. 2009). Further work on the ecology of Turtle Doves on their wintering grounds is needed to investigate the relevance of this result for UK birds. Trichomonosis, a disease widespread since 2005 that reduces fitness and survival among pigeons and other birds, has been recently observed in Turtle Doves and might therefore be a new factor in its decline (Stockdale et al. 2015).
Information about conservation actions
The most important driver of decline in the UK is believed to be a reduction in the number of breeding attempts due to low natural arable plant seed availability as a result of herbicide use. Hence actions designed to provide suitable nesting and foraging habitat are required (Browne & Aebischer 2004; Dunn & Morris 2012), particularly those that provide sufficient abundance of natural seeds throughout the breeding season (Browne & Aebischer 2003b; Dunn et al. 2016). Specific management actions might include the provision of uncropped margin or plots or set-aside, planting buffer strips around arable fields, sowing wild bird seed mixes, restoring or creating semi-natural grassland and managing hedgerows to provide nesting opportunities.
The decline has been so severe that the future of this species is precarious at a national level. Therefore, the provision of agri-environment options which pay farmers in and near the remaining strongholds for this species may be critical to encourage and enable the local habitat management actions described above: prompt and targeted action may be required to save this species as a UK breeding bird. In addition, supplementary feeding has been suggested as a potential action which could improve breeding productivity for this species; a field experiment did not find a significant positive effect from supplementary feeding, although the authors believed that the experimental sites were too small to show such an effect as Turtle Doves range widely during the breeding season (Browne & Aebischer 2002).
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