There and back again: satellite tagged turtle dove returns home

Rupert Masefield

Thursday 11 May 2017

RSPB scientists have succeeded in mapping the complete migratory route of a British turtle dove for only the second time, after a bird fitted with a tracking device in East Anglia last summer arrived back in the UK this week.

The bird, named Lawford after the Essex village where he was fitted with his tracker last summer, crossed the channel to arrive back in the UK on Friday 5 May.

After a layover in Croydon and short detour via Suffolk, Lawford made his way to within two miles of where he was first found in 2016, adding to evidence that is helping scientists understand the importance of turtle doves' faithfulness to their established breeding territories.

The turtle dove is Europe's only migratory dove. Every autumn they cross the Mediterranean Sea and Sahara desert to reach their wintering grounds in Africa, returning to their European breeding grounds in the spring.

Since leaving Essex in September last year, Lawford has travelled over 6,000 miles, stopping in (or flying over) six other countries: France, Spain, Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania and Mali.

Turtle doves' return to the UK traditionally marks the arrival of spring, but the sound of their purring 'turr-turr' calls is becoming increasingly scarce in most parts of the British countryside.

The number of turtle doves breeding in Britain has plummeted since the 1970s - a trend that has continued in recent decades - making them one of the UK's fastest declining birds.

Operation Turtle Dove, a partnership project that aims to reverse turtle doves' decline in the UK, has seen conservationists working closely with farmers and landowners to provide breeding and feeding habitat for turtle doves in areas of the East and South-East of England where they still breed.

In parallel with these efforts, RSPB researchers have been using satellite tracking technology to follow turtle doves and learn more about the pressures they face on migration and in their wintering grounds.

RSPB Conservation Scientist John Mallord, said: "Research has shown that the main driver of turtle dove decline in the UK is the loss of food for the birds from the countryside due to changes in the farmed landscape. Farmers and landowners are working hard alongside Operation Turtle Dove to address this problem, but as migratory birds turtle doves also face many threats and pressures outside this country.

"Between leaving in September and arriving back this May, Lawford will have faced threats such as legal autumn hunting in Europe, had to survive the harsh environmental conditions encountered crossing the Sahara, and find enough food and water over the winter to prepare for his return journey.

"Having overcome all of these existential challenges to make it back to his breeding territory, we now have to hope that he can find a mate and enough food to successfully breed and help sustain the UK turtle dove population. If he does, it will be in no small part thanks to the efforts of farmers and landowners who are helping turtle doves on their land."

You can follow the journeys of Lawford and the other satellite tagged turtle doves on the RSPB website:

To learn more about Operation Turtle Dove and what you can do to help turtle doves in the UK, please visit

1. The tracking device and harness used to attach it are powered by a tiny battery charged by a solar panel and have a total weight of just 5 grams - less than 3 per cent of the bird's body weight. Find out more about the satellite tagging process at

2. According to the latest (2015) UK Breeding Bird Survey report, UK turtle dove numbers have fallen by 93 per cent since 1994.

In 2015 the European turtle dove was 'uplisted' to 'Vulnerable' on the IUCN's global Red List of Threatened Species in response to the global extinction threat this once common bird now faces.

3. Operation Turtle Dove is a partnership conservation project between the RSPB, Conservation Grade, Natural England and Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and was launched in Spring 2012. The partnership aims to identify the primary causes of the turtle dove decline and develop and deploy urgent practical solutions. For more information:

4. The RSPB is the UK's largest nature conservation charity, inspiring everyone to give nature a home. Together with our partners, we protect threatened birds and wildlife so our towns, coast and countryside will teem with life once again. We play a leading role in BirdLife International, a worldwide partnership of nature conservation organisations.

Last Updated: Tuesday 28 August 2018

Tagged with: Country: England Topic: Species conservation