Blog by Bruce Fowkes (RSPB Corporate Partnerships Farm Advisor)
The gentle purr of the turtle dove was once the sound of summer, enjoyed for a few brief months from early May until the birds’ departure back to Africa in August. But their evocative call is becoming increasingly rare following rapid and perpetual population declines.
Turtle doves were once widespread across much of England and Wales, but the most recent figures show that the population in the south east, one of the last remaining strongholds, has fallen by 84 per cent since 1995 [note 1]. Nationally turtle doves have declined by 93 per cent since 1970 [note 2].
At this current rate of change, if we don’t help this species, scientists calculate there will be fewer than 1000 pairs by 2020, and complete UK extinction as a breeding species will be a real possibility.
To help reverse the fortunes of the turtle dove, conservationists embarked on an urgent mission to save the UK’s most threatened farmland bird from extinction.
Operation Turtle Dove was launched last summer by the RSPB, Conservation Grade, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and Natural England.
Now in its second year, the project partners want to remind members of the public to report their sightings of turtle doves to a special hotline, either by phone 01603 697527 or email email@example.com
Last year, the hotline had over 425 calls reporting the elusive bird, which has helped map where the birds are breeding and highlight any hotspots to focus the project’s conservation efforts.
Bruce Fowkes, RSPB South East farmland bird advisor, said: “It’s great that so many people are looking out for these birds and supported Operation Turtle Dove last year.
“Turtle doves are truly struggling, and we are facing the very real possibility of losing this beautiful bird from the UK within the next 10 years.
“So we’re hoping for more reports this year and are appealing to anyone who spots a turtle dove to call and give us as much information as possible.”
Reasons for the turtle dove’s population crash are not fully understood. However, since the 1960s their diet has changed from mainly the small seeds of wild plants, which are now scarce in our countryside, to one dominated mainly by crop seeds.
These seeds are often in short supply early in the breeding season, and this lack of food during a crucial period could be resulting in a much shorter breeding season with fewer nesting attempts.
Other factors that may be contributing to the decline of the turtle dove includes 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.
To report your turtle dove sightings, call the Operation Turtle Dove Hotline on 01603 697527 or you can submit your sightings, together with any photos and stories you’d like to share, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org