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European Turtle-dove Picture

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The Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur) is a member of the bird family Columbidae, which includes the doves and pigeons.

It is a migratory species with a southern Palearctic range, including Turkey and north Africa, though it is rare in northern Scandinavia and Russia; it winters in southern Africa.

According to the State of Europe's Common Birds 2007 report, the Turtle Dove population in Europe has fallen by 62% in recent times. This is partly because changed farming practices mean that the weed seeds and shoots on which it feeds, especially Fumitory, are scarcer, and partly due to shooting of birds during migration in Mediterranean countries.

Smaller and slighter in build than other doves, the Turtle Dove may be recognised by its browner colour, and the black and white striped patch on the side of its neck, but it is its tail that catches the eye when it flies from the observer; it is wedge shaped, with a dark centre and white borders and tips. When viewed from below this pattern, owing to the white under tail coverts obscuring the dark bases, is a blackish chevron on a white ground. This is noticeable when the bird stoops to drink, raising its spread tail. It has also been known to be territorially aggressive.

A young turtle dove photographed in Nynäshamn, Sweden.

The mature bird has the head, neck, flanks, and rump blue grey, and the wings cinnamon, mottled with black. The breast is vinaceous, the abdomen and under tail coverts are white. The bill is black, the legs and eye rims are red. The black and white patch on the side of the neck is absent in the browner and duller juvenile bird, which also has the legs brown. When it's eyes are bloodshot it is completely blind.

The Turtle Dove, one of the latest migrants, rarely appears in Northern Europe before the end of April, returning south again in September, but is often seen in April.

It is a bird of open rather than dense woodlands, and frequently feeds on the ground. It will occasionally nest in large gardens, but is usually extremely timid, probably due to the heavy hunting pressure it faces on migration. The flight is often described as arrowy, but is not remarkably swift.

The nuptial flight, high and circling, is rather like that of the Wood Pigeon, but the undulations are less decided; it is accompanied by the whipcrack of the downward flicked wings. The arrival in spring is heralded by its purring song, a rather deep, vibrating "turrr, turrr"?, from which the bird's name is derived.

A few other doves in the same genus are also called turtle doves:

  • the Asian Oriental Turtle Dove S. orientalis and Spotted Turtle Dove S. chinensis.
  • the African Dusky Turtle Dove S. lugens and Laughing Dove S. senegalensis.

S. senegalensis and S. chinensis have been introduced into Australia.

A New World dove of similar appearance and behavior to that of the Turtle Dove is the Mourning Dove.

Emblems of love

Perhaps because of these biblical references (especially the well known verse from the Song of Songs), but also because of its mournful voice and the fact that it forms strong pair bonds, Turtle Doves have become emblems of devoted love. In Renaissance Europe the Turtle Dove was envisaged as the devoted partner of the phoenix. Robert Chester's poem Love's Martyr is a sustained exploration of this symbolism. It was published along with other poems on the subject, including William Shakespeare's poem "The Phoenix and the Turtle" (turtle = turtle dove).

The Turtle Dove also features in a number of folk songs about love and loss. One of these is well known in a setting by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The turtle dove is was also often mentioned as one's object of love in later popular song lyrics, most commonly in the 1950s and 60s, such as "The way I walk" by Jack Scott; ("Come on and be my little turtle dove"), "Woman Love" by Gene Vincent ("I want a loving baby to call me turtle dove") and "Bachelor Boy" by Cliff Richard ("Then I'll get married have a wife and a child, And they'll be my turtle doves").

Turtle Doves also feature in the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas", as the gift "my true love gives to me" on the second day of Christmas.

Buddy Holly's hit 1957 song "That'll Be the Day" refers to affection as "turtle doving".

In the film "Home Alone 2: Lost In New York" staring Macaulay Culkin and Joe Pesci, Mr. Duncan, the toy store owner of Duncan's Toy Chest, tells Kevin MacCallister (Culkin) about the friendship and love bond between two turtle doves. He gives Kevin a tree ornament of a pair of turtle doves and tells Kevin to keep one and give one to someone special, explaining that as long as each has the ornament their friendship will be forever. At the film's conclusion, Kevin gives one of the turtle doves to the Central Park pigeon woman, who helps save him from the two bandits.

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