Bird song (40) – Turtle Dove

Turtle Dove. photo: Tim Melling

The Song of Solomon talks of the voice of the turtle being heard in the land – that was the Turtle Dove, not some warbling reptile. But it is a song rather rarely heard in the land these days. The Turtle Dove was once a very common bird in southeast England and its purring was a backdrop to many a picnic or beer in a country pub.

The last record I have of seeing a Turtle Dove in the UK was in May 2017 at the RSPB nature reserve at Frampton Marsh where they are still quite a good bet.

In my youth I remember being driven to East Anglia in the school holidays in what was probably 1971. Coming from the West Country, and being a novice birder, I’d never seen a Turtle Dove before but as soon as we started crossing The Fens near Wicken there were Turtle Doves everywhere – in the fields, in the villages and perched along roadside telephone wires. There were scores of them – a new bird for me but after a day or so utterly familiar with its wedge-shaped tail with white edges. And the song was omnipresent- now you’d be very lucky to track one down.

It’s a simple but strangely alluring song. Here’s one from France;

and another from Poland:

and another from the UK:

I always think of Turtle Doves as being May birds but they come back to us in late April. Good luck in listening out for them – you’ll probably have to be in Suffolk, Essex, Kent or Sussex to have the best chance. And your chances of hearing them are falling every year. I was planning to spend this weekend with a group of friends in Suffolk – we would have talked about life, the universe and Wild Justice and we would have listened for Turtle Doves at a farm where they sang a decade ago. Maybe later this summer – or maybe next year.


13 Replies to “Bird song (40) – Turtle Dove”

  1. I heard and saw Turtle Dove at the end of April last year in Extremadura, although they were not common by any means, then again in Bulgaria in June where they were commoner, with some on wires in villages.
    The song is almost soporific although my last two UK sightings have both been autumn birds in Shetland, including one last year. The last I heard singing in the UK was a few years ago at Bardney Lime Woods in Lincolnshire. It still occurs on the North York Moors near the raptor watch point at Wykeham, I suspect the only place in the north it still occurs as a regular breeder.
    My most memorable sighting was at Heacham, Norfolk on 15th May 1976 when in a couple of hours ( waiting for a cannon net catch) approximately 600 flew west. In this day and age that is almost impossible to believe.

    1. First turtle back in my part of Suffolk on 17th. Usual site and straight on supplementary feed. Calling next day. Early but not the earliest. Others back now on four farms/sites i shoot/ pest control and do conservation work on. Expect more to follow. A little bit of education, the right habbitat and feed in the right place goes a long way to help them. Also been fortunate enough to have them come to my garden feeders most years. Last year they done really well on six sites i am involved in. Wild english partridges doing well to. Both part of the proper sight and sound of Spring. Neither would do so well without targeted pest control! Hobby turned up Tuesday and inspecting usual nest site . . . . .Robins nesting above my window at home really busy feeding 5 young but still planning ahead. Started building another nest not 3ft away from first this morning even though young not due to fledge until next Monday/Tuesday. They have done this other years when conditions are good and there is food aplenty. . . . . . Humming Bird hawk moths about/seen on 15th feeding on dandelions. Earliest ever! Guessing over Wintered as there were a lot about last year in garden until late October.

      1. ‘Calling next day. Early but not the earliest.’
        Interesting Steve, but how early is early? Would it be about the same time as the first Collard Dove calls in the morning? Your Robins’ nesting behaviour is intersting too. Must be down to all that supplementary food you provide.

        1. Murray Marr,
          By early i meant it is not earliest they have returned. That first bird may have been back before 17th, it was just the first time it seen on that farm. I was told there was one over towards Minsmere a few days before. . . . Yes, robins building nest and feeding young at same time all day. Could not see or tell if they swapped rolls. Be interesting to see how both of the nests turn out and once eggs are laid and they still feeding fledged young. They rarely use feeders this time of year. Plenty of natural food in garden, borders and near by. . . . . Other farms locally that are in The Turtle Dove Project (farm cluster) get there supplementary feed for turtle doves given and supplied by RSPB and are also monitored by them. We provide and feed our own very similar mix of seeds and manage habitat differently. Smaller but more areas of thorn, scrub and bramble they like. Very site specific birds, and i feel privileged they have also visited my garden/feeders on there return most years out of the past 27 years. . . More swifts turned up today.

          1. Thanks. And thanks for all your good TD work — not heard one here in W Sx for years and years despite plenty of available habitat still.

      2. An interesting comment – “Neither would do so well without targeted pest control!”. I’m sure we will disagree on that point, but what “pests” are you referring to, please?

  2. Mark when you travelled to East Anglia in days gone by I be you did not see as many Woodpigeons as you do now nor would they tolerate you being so near to them, especially round houses.

    On the other hand Tim’s photo is quite appropriately posed; the Turtle doves I have seen lately have been a lot more secretive.
    I remember when watching them while hanging washing out they used to perch on top of the pine trees in full view or atop dead skeleton Elm saplings, now they tend to land out of site. If you move round to see then they shuffle along the branch to be out of sight behind a clump of leaves.

  3. Loved the Polish recording, especially the Common cranes toward the end. But what a tragedy is emerging there, a huge fire in Biebrza valley 6k hectares of marsh on fire.

  4. Mark, David Wege (whom I’m sure you will know) has had one near his home this morning (25th).

  5. I was just stopped in my tracks by a Turtle Dove purring from a chimney pot (albeit next to some scrubland) just outside Cambridge. Seems early to me – I normally associate these with mid May onwards. I went the whole of last year without hearing one, so this was a treat. Photo on my Instagram feed @davidcwege

  6. A good place to hear them – if we can travel again in time – is Knepp in Sussex. I went there two years ago hoping I might just hear one – and did so before I’d finished pitching my tent.

  7. 15th August 2020 Heard a turtle dove this afternoon, classic purring, in a tall hedge near Woodton, Norfolk. Mixed in with collared doves.

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