Bird of the Week: Turtle Dove

A bird best appreciated in summer, despite being indelibly associated with Christmas.

photographs by RSPB Images
Published 20 Jun 2019, 09:53 BST
A turtle dove at an RSPB Reserve in Essex. The bird's name is down to its ...
A turtle dove at an RSPB Reserve in Essex. The bird's name is down to its distinctive call, rather than its appearance.
Photograph by Les Bunyan

This dainty dove, around the size of a blackbird, was once heard purring on warm summer days in farmland across the UK. Turtle doves are beautiful birds with intricate tortoiseshell patterns on their wings: but it's their song, rather than their plumage, that gives them their name. Their "turrrr -turrrrrrrrrrrr" call earned them the title 'tourterelle' in France, which became 'turtle' in English.

Each summer turtle doves arrive in the UK from their wintering grounds in West Africa, before settling deep in thick hedgerows and scrub to raise their young. Unfortunately their numbers have fallen dramatically in the last few decades and they are mainly limited to the east and south east of England.

There are many threats facing these birds, including loss of suitable areas to spend the winter in Africa, hunting on migration, and disease. However the biggest problem for turtle doves in the UK is a lack of food during their breeding season. 

A pair of turtle doves perched on farm machinery in south-east England.
Photograph by Andy Hay

Turtle doves eat seeds of plants that grow wild in the countryside: clovers, fumitory, and vetches for example. But with less of this seed around they are now raising fewer chicks, creating a serious dent in their numbers before they even begin their perilous journey south.

Operation Turtle Dove, a partnership between Natural England, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, Fair to Nature and the RSPB, aims to reverse this bird's fortunes and give it a brighter future. Working with farmers, for example, the Operation Turtle Dove team are ensuring that there is seed food available during the summer, along with suitable places to nest and a supply of water nearby. Find out more at

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