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It might soon be just two turtle doves

20 December 2019

Ian Tattum takes a look at the mixed fortunes of the turtle dove


THE Holy Spirit descended like a dove on Christ at his baptism, and it was a dove that brought to Noah the good news that the flood had receded. Members of the pigeon family have long been associated with hope and spiritual renewal in the Christian tradition.

But the same family of birds also gave us the dodo and the passenger pigeon, two familiar symbols of extinction. A startling statistic is that it took until 1850 for the global human population to catch up with the population of the passenger pigeon, and barely 60 more for the latter to be wiped out altogether.

The great Scottish-American conservationist John Muir left us a picture of the bird’s abundance: “Of all God’s feathered people . . . no other bird seemed so wonderful. . . I have seen the flocks streaming south in the autumn so large that they were flowing over from horizon to horizon in an almost continuous stream all day long.”

Another of “God’s feathered people”, the turtle dove (Streptopelia turtur), the lover’s gift on the second day of Christmas, has long been a poetic symbol of spring and love, as in the Song of Solomon:

The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of singing has come,
and the turtle dove
is heard in our land.

The turtle dove is so named because of its purring song, which people have long perceived as both mournful and consoling.

Now it, too, is in danger. About 250,000 visited Britain in the spring of 1966, but, today, barely 5000 make it to these shores each year, and the fall in numbers has sharpened in the past five years. It is a history that tells us something about our relationship with God’s creation and the mysteries contained therein.

WHEN God answers Job from the whirlwind, he reminds him of the limits of human knowledge concerning creation and the lives of animals: “Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? Do you observe the calving of the deer?”

Job was expected to answer such a question with an emphatic “No.” Those of us who live in the age of lushly filmed nature documentaries, in which drones and hidden cameras can probe such secrets, might be tempted to answer more positively. Such familiarity can, however, mislead us into thinking we know more than we do.

It is only with the recent advent of satellite transmitters that the exact migratory route of the turtle dove has been discovered. The birds that arrive in Britain in late April and early May have travelled three thousand miles from West Africa — Mali, Niger, and Senegal — across the Sahara Desert and the Atlas Mountains, before crossing the Mediterranean into Spain, and, finally, the English Channel.

The study of breeding behaviour has revealed one of the key factors in its decline. In the 1960s, each pair of birds was able to rear two or three broods a year. Now most pairs can barely manage one, and clutch sizes are falling, too. Although thousands of turtle doves are shot by hunters as they pass over the Continent, there is no doubt that this lack of chicks has a more significant impact on numbers. A fundamental reason for this, as is the case for most of the declining bird species, is that there is not enough food, or that only the wrong kind of food.

It is easy to think that the animal behaviour we observe is in some way “natural” when it is inevitably affected by what humans do. It would be folly, for example, to conclude that chips are the traditional diet of gulls.

When it comes to turtle doves, there is still uncertainty about exactly what they need to eat to flourish. Not long ago, an RSPB-led conservation project, based on the observation that the birds are known to glean the fields for grain, tried supplementing their diet by scattering supplies of what they believed were suitable seed. The project was not a success.

ALAMYA lantern made by schoolchildren in the “Twelve Days of Christmas” parade in Greenwich, in November

One conclusion is that the turtle doves only feast on grain because that is all that is left to them by modern farming practices. There is evidence that hard grain seriously damages the bird’s throat, in contrast to the once-common agrarian flowers of the field, such as fumitory, clover, and vetches.

This familiar bird, deeply embedded in our culture, has evidently still not revealed all its secrets.

GLIMMERS of hope can be found in rewilding, a process described by the author and conservationist Isabella Tree in her book Wilding: The return of nature to a British farm (Picador, 2018). The wilding project at Knepp, in Sussex, suggests that a more varied, untidy habitat can created a safe environment and bring back the native plants which turtle doves need to prosper.

Ornithologists have also begun to ask whether too little attention has been paid to the turtle dove’s African home, which is where, after all, it spends most of the year. There, it is a scrubland species, and has a varied diet including caterpillars.

The Book of Job assumes that wild creatures live outside human boundaries, eluding both our understanding and control. Wilding projects, and more modest, preferably untidy, attempts to give nature space, whether in churchyards or back gardens, are a means of restoration. We are, at last, learning that we need to allow the wilderness to return to allow “God’s feathered people” to thrive.

Some Christians still think of the God-given relationship of humans with other sentient beings as one of utility, relying on a very narrow interpretation of the concept of dominion in Genesis 1.2; but the Hebrew scriptures contain a great variety of alternatives, including the one in Job that the terrain and character of wild animals transcend human scope and are known fully only to God.

Isaiah 40-41 reveals a creator who makes a path through the wilderness for the exiles to return, but fills the remainder with abundant non-human life.

When the English parson-naturalist John Ray pioneered the scientific study of birds in the 17th century, he saw his task as philosophical and theological. His project could be described as one of mapping the divine ecology, in which birds were observed and categorised, to discover where they fitted into God’s scheme.

To achieve his aim, he thought it necessary to put to one side the traditions, legends, and symbolic meanings that had come to be associated with birds, such as the belief that kingfishers could be used to predict the weather, and the wisdom contained in medieval bestiaries that pigeons represented the love of God and love of neighbour.

But symbolism has a way of reasserting itself in new ways. As the Victorians came to identify city-dwelling sparrows with the urban poor (who similarly scrambled for scraps in the streets), so the present-day plight of vulnerable birds mirrors humanity’s present fragility.

In his book about Coleridge and the Wordsworths and their circle, The Making of Poetry (William Collins, 2019), Adam Nicolson suggests that Coleridge’s sense of kinship with nature has come alive in the present time: “It was not a form of anthropomorphism — thinking that birds are like us — but the opposite, zoomorphism, that we are like the birds. . . The mariner shoots the albatross, and in doing so shoots himself.”

The turtle dove has thus become more than a sign of spring and a token of romantic love, a symbol of loss and fragile hope. It has also magnified humanity’s sense of connectedness to the whole natural world, which its actions threaten.

The turtle dove is a reminder that, in this season, we celebrate God’s outpouring of love for all of creation, in all its fragility.

The Revd Ian Tattum is Vicar of St Barnabas’s, Southfields, in south London.

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