RSPB
Print page

Don't let the turtle dove become the UK's 'passenger pigeon', says RSPB

Last modified: 01 September 2014

Turtle dove in hawthorn hedge

Image: Graham Catley

On the 100th anniversary of the extinction of North America’s passenger pigeon today [Monday 1 September, 2014], the RSPB is highlighting the plight of the turtle dove, which is currently halving in number every six years.

The turtle dove, which once had a stronghold in the south east of England, is now in serious decline and in danger of extinction, and numbers have dropped by 85 per cent since 1995.
The British Trust for Ornithology’s latest Bird Atlas has revealed that the turtle dove’s range has shrunk dramatically by 52 per cent between 1970 and 2010.
As part of a bid to raise awareness and help increase numbers, the RSPB’s south east farm advisory team has provided advice to 33 farmers, covering an area of 6700 hectares, encouraging them to increase the amount of turtle dove foraging habitat on their farms, with a hugely positive response.

Four south east reserves, Pagham Harbour in West Sussex and Lydden Valley, Northward Hill and Broadwater Warren in Kent are providing potential nesting areas and growing plants which produce the seeds they eat. 

“If we increase their foraging habitat, over time the turtle doves will have more chance of survival and they are more likely to breed and increase their numbers,” said RSPB Turtle Dove Conservation Advisor Hayley New.

Andrew Elms is a Conservation Grade farmer who farms 300 hectares near Chichester in West Sussex, and he is in the second year of his involvement with Operation Turtle Dove. He has planted a number of seed mix trial plots for turtle doves and works to provide a suitable habitat for turtle doves and other farmland birds such as siskins, yellow hammers and gold finches.
“I hope that what I grow here, including a wide variety of crops and different mixtures of seeds, is helping to contribute to attracting farmland birds, especially those in decline like the turtle dove.”
Andrew has seen and heard turtle doves on his farm this year. Conservation grade farmers are members of the Guild of Conservation Grade Producers and are committed to growing crops which contribute to the flora and fauna of the farm, and targeting species in decline.

Just like the now-extinct passenger pigeon, the turtle dove is a migratory bird. The species nests in the UK and Europe and spends the winter in Africa, south of the Sahara.
Tara Proud, of the RSPB, said: “The decline of the passenger pigeon is a strikingly similar story to the decline of our very own turtle dove, which currently is halving in number every six years. It’s too late for passenger pigeon, but 100 years on we don’t have to accept that turtle doves will suffer the same fate. Turtle doves are the UK’s fastest declining bird species. For every 20 doves we had in 1970, we now only have one. At this rate, the bird’s UK extinction as a nesting species is a real possibility.”

Operation Turtle Dove was launched in May 2012 to stop the turtle dove following the same path as the passenger pigeon. 
Operation Turtle Dove is a partnership between the RSPB, Conservation Grade, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and Natural England. 
Tara Proud added: “Together, we are identifying the primary causes of the decline through research right across their long migration. We then develop urgent practical solutions – such as advising farmers how they can provide food for turtle doves on their land.”
Martha, the last known example of the passenger pigeon died in Cincinnati Zoo, in Ohio at 1pm (6pm GMT).

Bird guide

Related websites

Share this