Turtle doves: Hunting for a chance to survive

Danaë Sheehan, RSPB Migrants Programme Manager, writes…

The Passenger Pigeon Ectopistes migratorius of North America was once regarded as the most abundant bird on the continent, if not the world. Yet despite this, and over a period of just forty years, unsuccessful breeding, coupled with mass human exploitation and disease, saw the population decline so dramatically that it was declared extinct in the wild by the end of the nineteenth century. Martha, the last known passenger pigeon, died in captivity at Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

The European Turtle Dove is Europe’s only migratory dove, and one of its most rapidly declining birds. It spends less than half of its annual cycle in Europe, arriving here to breed in late April/early May, before departing back to the non-breeding areas in arid sub-Saharan West Africa in September/October. Population monitoring in Europe has highlighted serious declines, primarily associated with loss of suitable breeding and foraging habitat due to changes in agricultural land management in the breeding range. However, other factors may also be contributory, particularly changes to habitat quality and availability along the migratory route and in the non-breeding range. With the population declining so rapidly, and with new evidence of disease emerging, the additional impacts of hunting and illegal killing will become increasingly significant. Some say the issues have been exaggerated issues to make a point. However, in the case of the European Turtle Dove, it is pretty difficult to exaggerate their plight. The facts speak for themselves.

But just how do we help reverse declines of a migratory bird that does not recognise international boundaries, moving between Europe and Africa and consequently shared by us all?

The threats faced by this species once they leave our shores are many. Hunting of Turtle Doves is permitted in several EU Member States, and it is a sought after quarry species in Spain, France, Italy, Malta and Portugal – all likely to be important migratory staging areas. Beyond Europe, sport hunting and functional loss of habitat through disturbance also potentially pose significant threats for birds migrating through the Maghreb, particularly in Morocco and Mauritania. In Africa, landscape-scale threats to habitats used by Turtle Doves in their wintering range are complex as they are associated with food security issues in regions with rapidly expanding human populations. They include land use changes brought about by conversion of semi-natural grassland, shrubland and wooded landscapes to intensive agriculture associated with the abandonment of sustainable and traditional land management practices and overgrazing in traditionally used pastoral systems. In such arid regions, climatic variability also plays a big role, and variation in the amount of cereal produced annually in the Mali-Senegal area has been shown to be a significant predictor of survival.

So what can we do when the issues seem so great?

For a migratory species such as the Turtle Dove, it will be important to use our expanding knowledge of migratory routes to identify a network of critical sites. This will need to take into account the relationship between sites which may be ecologically linked to each other in physical terms (for example as areas of interconnected habitats), or in other ecological terms (for example as breeding areas related to non-breeding areas, stopover sites, feeding and resting places). We need to establish research projects that will inform the development of appropriate and effective targeted conservation interventions, including site-based projects to examine and redress loss and modification of key habitats due to anthropogenic impact on the environment. These will include testing solutions relating to habitat restoration and regeneration and delineating hunting refugia at important stop-over sites and wintering areas. In the non-breeding range, we need to establish and implement appropriate and effective conservation management regimes to mitigate the degradation and loss of habitats supporting Turtle Doves. Key to the success of this would be to promote participatory approaches in land planning, management and conservation actions so as to enable the engagement of, and benefit-sharing with, local communities. The development of future solutions in Africa within agricultural landscapes will need to be promoted through relevant national agricultural policy and advocacy, integrating considerations of biodiversity and the requirements of both migrant and afro-tropical species with measures for combating poverty, desertification and the longer-term effects of climate change whilst taking account of food, water and energy security imperatives.

Whilst it is acknowledged that hunting is not the ultimate cause of the population decline, it is both sensible and responsible to limit every source of mortality until population recovery is achieved. Enforcement of legislation to eliminate illegal killing should be strengthened and conservationists on all sides should work together not only to address the species research needs and the development and implementation of appropriate conservation solutions, but to give consideration to the idea of a voluntary moratorium on the hunting of this species in some parts of its range.

Although worrying similarities do exist with the demise of the Passenger Pigeon in North America, we do not have to accept that this is the inevitable end for the European Turtle Dove. However, we need to act now to prevent the Turtle Dove becoming Europe’s Passenger Pigeon.