A version of this blog first appeared on www.talkonthewildside.co.uk and Lucy has kindly given permission for it’s use here.
Five gold rings; four calling birds; three French hens; two…
Isn’t that scary – by the time I have children, and they are old enough to sing Christmas carols, odds are there won’t be any turtle doves left in Britain. Eight, maybe ten, years and then that’s it. What’s worse, no one is really sure why they’re disappearing, but like most extinctions, it’s probably a combination of factors – habitat loss, less food as we tighten agricultural regimes, hunting on migration. And when my children ask me what turtle doves are (or were), I’ll sit down and I’ll tell them a story, about how excited I was to see my first ever turtle dove.
I started birding almost two years before I got my first glimpse of this most romantic of creatures; a combination of exams and work prevented my searching them out, and seeing as they’re hardly common any more in Leicestershire, a twitch of some sort would almost definitely be required. Hence my excitement when, at one of my regular visits to friends at Thorpe-Haddiscoe near Lowestoft, we received word that a male had been reported ‘purring’ only a few miles away, in a churchyard.
Now I’m hardly religious, but even I could appreciate the romance in this; the churchyard, on arrival, was one of those beautifully quaint areas, enclosed by ancient stone walls, dotted with crumbling marble and granite headstones, and dominated by an imposing, yet quiet church, set back from the sleepy hamlet; the trees were old and twisted and the grass in places quite wild and unkempt; the usual suspects – chiffchaffs, willow warblers, chaffinches and blackbirds – uttered their various songs and calls.
And over it all, even though I’d never heard it before in my life, the unmistakable and instantly recognisable purring of the turtle dove Streptopelia turtur, perched in a nearby tree. Like so many birds, we named this little chap for it’s song (or at least the French did) – tourterelle, the onomatopoeic ‘turring’ sound. A lulling, repetitive noise, which rather draws you in; once you hear it, you’ll never forget it. Without being loud, it dominates the soundscape, and without being brash, it demands attention.
I find turtle doves quite odd birds to look at; paradoxical, if you will. From a combination of Christmas cards, cakes and tree decorations, you rather expect them to be pure white (or at least, that’s the impression I’ve always had). It’s rather disappointing, therefore, when you get your first glimpse of what looks on the basis of it, much like any other pigeon. But then you look again, harder, and you realise that although this bird may not be quite what you expected, it’s actually far more beautiful. A mottling of pale greys, browns, bronzes, pinks, lilacs, blues, mushrooms, buffs, blacks and beiges, with clearly defined plumage across the wings, and black-white striped markings around the neck, that almost look like the gills on a fish. A sharp red eye outlined in pink, gives the turtle dove a knowing look, and a thick, white outline on the tail, visible in flight, reminds me of the veil on a bride.
I’ll also tell my children, that only a few weeks after this encounter, I was almost ecstatic with delight to find out that two birds were trying to nest near my friend’s farm; a short walk gave excellent views of both creatures, a mating pair to complete my romantic image of the bird.
The thing is, this animal doesn’t need to be a British ‘birder’s bird’; the cultural legwork is done, the foot’s already in the door, as a large proportion of the population relate to this bird in some way or another – a combination of singing about it, reading poetry about it, having it embedded in national literary consciousness, recollecting happy memories of a time when the bird was in abundance, as recently as the 1970s. It made the front cover of the Birdfair programme in 2011 through Robert Gillmor’s exquisite artwork, and its plight has made the national news.
It’s sad to think that with all of the excellent efforts from organisations like Operation Turtle Dove and many others. What’s even more worrying, is that this is only one tiny battle in the grand scale loss of our natural world that is currently going on, some of it the natural Darwinian course of evolution, some of it far more sinister and human-influenced. How many species will it take to secure a national or international shift in our attitudes, flippancy and complacency and make us demand Fair to Nature?
Five gold rings; four calling birds; three French hens; two –