Tracking Turtle Doves

In a science first the migration route of a UK-breeding turtle dove has been revealed by RSPB scientists – providing valuable data to help save turtle doves from UK extinction.

In summer 2014, scientists from the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science fitted a turtle dove – named Titan – with small, lightweight satellite tag in Suffolk before it embarked on its mammoth migration journey. Titan then completed an incredible 11,200 km to Mali in West Africa where he spent his winter and back to Suffolk again – to exactly where he originally was tagged.

Titan being tagged_Suffolk2014_photo credit to Thomas Churchyard
Titan being fitted with his lightweight tag which allows us to track his migration from Suffolk to Mali and back again, photo credit: Tom Churchyard

What has Titan taught us?

Titan flew mostly under the cover of darkness. He flew across vast landscapes such as the Atlas Mountains, Sahara Desert and the Gulf of Cadiz. And he travelled around 500-700 km per night, flying at a maximum speed of 60 km per hour.

Titan’s outbound journey to Africa took around a month to complete. On his return the avian jet-setter spent two weeks making his way through France, initially following the Atlantic coast, before leaving from Dunkirk and touching down in Suffolk.

His outbound journey took him south from Suffolk through France and Spain before reaching Africa. He travelled from Morocco to Senegal in West Africa where he briefly stopped before reaching his main wintering area in Mali. Titan spent six months in Africa over winter compared to just four months in England!


Titan_Jonny Rankin
Titan back on his breeding grounds in Suffolk, after an incredible 11,200 km migration to Mali in West Africa and back! photo credit: Jonny Rankin

Why are we tracking turtle doves?

Turtle doves spend two thirds of their time outside the UK. Since turtle doves also face threats on migration and on their African wintering grounds, it is essential that we work alongside conservation partners in Europe and Africa to help this bird all along the turtle dove migration route.

But, before we can do this, we first need to know more about their migration.

Through observations and ringing recoveries, we have long known that turtle doves make an annual migration from their breeding grounds in Europe to their wintering grounds in Africa. But important questions remained unanswered:

  1. Where exactly do turtle doves spend their winter?
  2. What route do they take to get there and back again?
  3. Are there important locations along that journey where turtle doves stop to rest and gather their energy again before continuing?

We need answers to these questions before we can target our conservation efforts effectively on precisely those areas the birds are using when they leave the UK.

This is the reason why we have been working hard to use cutting edge tracking technology to track the migration route of turtle doves.