15 Apr 2019

Symbols of love and fidelity brought down by illegal killing

The European Turtle-dove’s population is dropping fast, in large part due to illegal killing. But our partners are working hard to reverse this trend.

© BirdLife Europe
By Margaret Sessa-Hawkins

The European Turle-dove is one of seven flagship birds in our Flight for Survival campaign to raise awareness of the scope and scale of the illegal killing of migratory birds.

For thousands of years, European Turtle-doves have inspired humanity, serving as symbols of love, fidelity and new life. In Roman mythology, the bird was sacred to Demeter, Goddess of the harvest and fertility; in modern days, in Cockney rhyming slang, the words ‘turtle dove’ are used to mean ‘love’.

One of the main reasons the European Turtle-dove Streptopelia turtur is so well known may be because it is so widespread. The dove’s breeding grounds stretch across much of Europe, from Portugal, to Moscow, and even into Northern China. In the winter though, it heads down to warmer climes along the Sahel belt, in Africa. This journey is an arduous one, but despite its diminutive size, the dove is an excellent flyer. Travelling mostly at night, the bird can reach speeds of 60 km/h and fly distances of up to 700 km without stopping.

Unfortunately, humanity has not been treating the European Turtle-dove with love or fidelity over the past few decades. Once abundant throughout Europe and the Middle East, numbers have plummeted recently. In Europe alone, the dove’s population has fallen by 62% since 1980. In European Russia, the species has decreased by more than 90% since 1980. These decreases have led to the dove being classified as Vulnerable to extinction.

One of the reasons European Turtle-dove numbers are dropping is due to the intensification of agriculture. While the doves use agricultural land to feed, and nest in hedges and forestland, the intensification of agriculture has led to a decrease in hedges and scrubland, and the use of chemicals is also affecting the species.

Another reason numbers are dropping is related to the incredible yearly journey the dove makes, as they are often illegally killed during migration. In addition, the research for the development of the Species Action Plan published in 2018 revealed that on the western flyway of the species the take by legal hunting is currently unsustainable. In Portugal, for example, where hunting European Turtle-doves is legal during autumn, the bird’s numbers have dropped by 75% since 2004.

Across the Mediterranean in countries where hunting the bird is legal during a restricted period, there are thought to be roughly 600,000 birds killed illegally annually outside the legal period. In Malta this year, for example, the government considered lifting a moratorium on hunting the European Turtle-dove. While this was voted down, the hunting season for quail was extended through early April – meaning it will overlap with peak Turtle-dove migration.

In a statement on Facebook, BirdLife Malta said, “This means that despite the fact that the moratorium on the hunting of this vulnerable species will not be lifted, hunters will still be able to target the Turtle Dove and this year's spring hunting season - supposedly only for Quail - will only serve as a smokescreen for hunters to illegally shoot the declining Turtle Dove.” Not a single person was prosecuted for the illegal killing of European Turtle-doves last year, despite the fact that BirdLife Malta provided police with footage of an individual illegally shooting down a Turtle Dove.

Greece is one of the most dangerous areas for the European Turtle-dove. As the bird stops to rest on the Ionian Islands, exhausted after a long journey, gunshots ring out all around it. More than 70,000 turtle-doves are thought to be slaughtered there each spring, making it one of the worst black spots.

In response, the Hellenic Ornithological Society (HOS) is working tirelessly to ensure the bird’s safety. They use satellite tagging to closely study the migratory journeys of the turtle-doves, and working on education campaigns to raise awareness about the birds’ plight.

Humanity has made the European Turtle-dove a symbol of love and devotion. Our treatment of this bird should reflect these values, and ensure that it is around for years to come.

Help the European Turtle-dove and other migratory birds by supporting our Flight for Survival campaign, which follows the journeys of seven flagship species and highlights the work of our Partners in combatting illegal killing along their route.