In search of Turtle Doves

Turtle doves are just embarking on their long flight to return to our shores – but in far fewer numbers than even 5 years ago. We are working hard to understand the causes of these declines. Jenny Bright, one of the RSPB’s dedicated Conservation Scientists, shares her experiences of working on the RSPB Turtle Dove Monitoring Project last year.


Turtle doves: Andy Hay

Turtle dove catching day: July 2012

I meet my fellow ‘turtle dove hunter’ at a farm in Essex, to set the traps and head back to the B&B where I set my alarm for 4am. Not an unusual time for this research project unfortunately, and it has been known to be earlier! I am particularly excited about tomorrow though, after working on the turtle dove project for a few months I have now been granted a license to use a whoosh-net, meaning I can now help with catching doves to fit radio-tags to them, and tomorrow is my first day catching.

I have been working on the project since May, when turtle doves have mainly returned from their wintering grounds in Africa and are starting to think about breeding. Many breed on farms in the UK, mostly in the east and south east England. The research project aims to look at why the turtle dove has shown such a catastrophic decline in recent years, and what we can do to help them. We know that turtle doves now only have half the number of attempts at nesting in a year than they did in the sixties, which has happened at the same time as a big change in their diet. The answer may be that there is not enough of their preferred food in summer. Turtle doves are rather pickier than some birds, eating only seeds. We are working with farmers and have put trial plots of some of turtle doves’ previous favourite arable plants, and are hoping to compare how well they breed on these farms with neighbouring farms that don’t have the plots.

This is not as straightforward as it might sound. For example, for the past few weeks, I have been getting up (usually pre-dawn, as turtle doves often only sing for a few hours after dawn before packing up for the day), putting on full waterproofs to attempt to thorn-proof myself (not too much of a hardship on most days last summer, but rather less pleasant on the few days of blazing sunshine!) and crawling through suspicious looking bits of bramble in a turtle dove’s territory. When a turtle dove is not tagged, this is hard and often unrewarding work. Turtle doves are pretty cryptic at showing you where they nest, and unless you happen to be lucky enough to see them building a nest, the signs can be few and far between. A friend of mine once described nest-finding as ‘finding somewhere you don’t want to stick your head, and sticking your head there’, which feels particularly apt for this project!

So the team have spent several weeks crawling through bramble, finding only a few nests. Tomorrow, we will try and catch turtle doves, using what is called a ‘whoosh net’, a spring-loaded net attached to a pull-chord, which I will hold whilst sat at a safe distance in a very small tent. We put a small pile of seed next to the net to hopefully lure the birds in with. If we catch a bird, we put a radio-tag on it, meaning we can track it, making nest-finding considerably more successful as hedges and bushes with nests (of tagged doves) in will now beep!

The following day I sit in my small tent for six hours, watching a pile of seeds. The only action during this time is the farmer walking past with his dog and telling me that he has never seen a turtle dove land on the seeds. Suddenly from out of nowhere, seven turtle doves appear and land on the seed pile, around the seed pile, and, unfortunately, also on the net, making it unsafe to pull the chord. This is too much excitement after my more doveless recent weeks, my heart is now hammering, and I have to take my hand off the chord as it is shaking so much! The doves fly away again without having arranged themselves in a suitable manner. My heart sinks. Ten minutes later, the doves are back, five of them this time, and before I know it have lined themselves up on the pile and are safely caught! They are juvenile birds, hatched this year, so unfortunately they will not have nests for us to track, but we can still gain a lot of useful information on their feeding behaviour.

Catching birds to track can be time consuming in itself, but the tagged birds give us an invaluable insight into the birds breeding, allowing us to find nests much more easily, follow birds that have more than one nest over the summer, and see how far birds travel to feed (up to 7 miles during our study – a long way for lunch!).

There were several great moments like this on the project, and turtle doves are beautiful birds to work on, but overall I would describe my experience of working on the turtle dove project as alarming. Previous research projects I have worked on usually involve working on a species which has shown a historical decline, whereas with the turtle doves it felt like they were disappearing in front of your eyes. Four out of five turtle doves have been lost since 1995. In the first year that I worked on the project, we surveyed 60 sites where birds had been in the previous few years, to find they had been lost from over a third of them, and they disappeared from many of our study farms between years. Although last year is likely to have been difficult for many birds due to the weather, the 12 nests that we found fledged a total of just three chicks between them. If the turtle dove declines at its current rate, predictions are we will lose it as a breeding species within the next decade. I only hope that some of the information gathered from the research project can help to come up with a solution for them before it is too late.

Turtle doves are largely dependent on farmland, so this threatened bird needs farming heroes across the south east to help them survive. They will be arriving soon – hungry, and in need of nesting sites. If you want to help turtle doves on your farm, find out how here