Europe and Central Asia

How tracking one turtle dove could help save its whole species

By Jamie Wyver, 5 Aug 2015

In a first for UK science, a European Turtle dove (Streptopelia turtur) has been tracked by satellite tagging as it travelled 11,200km from Suffolk in England to Mali, Africa, and back again.

The route taken by Titan goes through the UK, France, Spain, Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Algeria and Morocco. Photo: RSPB

Flying mostly under the cover of darkness, the bird, named Titan, flew 500-700 kilometres a night across epic landscapes such as the Atlas Mountains of North Africa, Sahara Desert and the Gulf of Cádiz, visiting Senegal, Morocco and Spain en route. His maximum speed was 60km per hour.

Titan was fitted with a small, lightweight satellite tag in Suffolk in summer 2014 by the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science. Since then, Titan is playing a vital role in solving a serious conservation problem: how to prevent the rapid loss of his species from across Europe.

Turtle doves have recently been up listed to Vulnerable status on the 2015 European red list, with their population plummeting by 77% across the continent since 1980. In fact, the disappearance of these birds is happening so rapidly that their numbers in the UK are halving every six years. If the decline continues at this rate, the species may be lost as a breeding bird in the UK within the next couple of decades.

In the UK, the number of breeding attempts per turtle dove pair halved between the 1960s and the late 1990s, which on its own can explain the population decline of UK breeding turtle doves. The RSPB is working on the premise that due to changes in agricultural practices, the availability of favoured weed seeds has declined, leading to reduced annual productivity. We are working with farmers to make the most of agri-environment schemes that support provision of hedges and scrub for nesting, and turtle-dove foraging plots: areas sown and managed specifically for the birds.

The satellite tag was fitted on Titan in the garden of an RSPB volunteer in the UK. Photo: RSPB

After being fitted with the tag, Titan remained in Suffolk until the end of September, when he headed through France into Spain and finally into Africa, going from Mauritania to Senegal and settling in Mali, where he spent the winter.

On migration, many turtle doves fly over the Mediterranean, a danger zone because of the hunting of turtle doves here. When Titan first entered this region, the legal hunting seasons in France and Spain were in full swing. Estimates suggest that around one million birds are killed across the western European flyway each autumn.

But this is only one of many challenges migratory birds face, and not all make it. RSPB researchers fitted two turtle doves with satellite tags in 2014. However, only Titan made it successfully to the wintering grounds in Africa and back again.

There are many factors in Africa that could play a part in the alarming decline of turtle doves as well, such as a lack of reliable sources of food and water and limited suitable roosting sites. Africa has seen significant agricultural expansion and intensification, as well as desertification, in recent decades. 

Tracking Titan on his journey has given the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science valuable information, including the route taken, resting points and lengths of stays at those points, which will help understand where to target conservation efforts.

The turtle dove is listed as 'Vulnerable' on the 2015 European Red List of Birds. Photo: Andy Hay/RSPB

To encourage international collaboration on a plan to save turtle doves, the RSPB helped organise a symposium and round table event at the European Ornithologists Union conference this August to bring together academics and conservationists from across the species’ range at a flyway scale. Add to that, BirdLife International launched a new three-year EU LIFE+ funded project in April 2015 to identify the conservation needs of turtle doves (along with another 15 species) and to develop an International Species Action Plan.

There are also widespread efforts to ‘regreen’ the Sahel belt where turtle doves overwinter, which may bring back some of the roosting sites they need.

Titan finally left Mali on 19 May, and made swift progress through Mauritania and Algeria, arriving in Morocco on 24 May. Having just crossed the 2,000 km of the Sahara, he spent about two weeks resting in Morocco before crossing into Europe on 6 June. Passing through Spain and France, he finally returned to the UK, ending his journey very close to the spot he was first tagged a year earlier.