Six turtle doves are being satellite tracked from their breeding grounds in the UK to their wintering grounds in West Africa, to help scientists better understand why numbers are crashing so rapidly.
According to the recent UK Breeding Bird Survey, the number of turtle doves has declined by 93% since 1994. Last year, in a UK science first, the RSPB revealed the complete migration route of a satellite tagged, UK breeding turtle dove, named Titan, which provided valuable data in the conservation fight to help save the species from UK extinction.
Titan's satellite signal was lost earlier this year when the bird was in Mali and now the RSPB, in partnership with Operation Turtle Dove (OTD), are following six more.
John Mallord, of the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, said: "The purring of a turtle dove used to be the sound of summer but sadly due to a huge decline in numbers is now rare or non-existent."
"We have discovered a lot from Titan, including his exact migration route, important stopover sites and multiple wintering locations, and even how these vary between years in response to environmental conditions. He is also the first turtle dove in the world to be tracked over two consecutive years, giving us a unique opportunity to compare and contrast his behaviour over two successive migratory cycles."
Recognising the importance of the data gathered by tracking Titan, but realising there is only a limited amount you can learn from just one bird, the RSPB were granted permission to catch and satellite tag more turtle doves this summer at different locations across East Anglia.
It's hoped this new data will continue to provide crucial information about what turtle doves need and the threats they might face whilst on migration as well as on their breeding grounds here in the UK.
John continued: "It's really exciting to have been able to tag more birds so that we can learn more about the routes they take to and from Africa. Once we have a clear picture of the areas they overwinter, and the threats they may face, we can support local conservation groups in promoting the sustainable use of the forests, feeding grounds and watering holes the birds rely on."
As the six newly tagged birds prepare to leave the UK for their wintering ground in Africa, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science are inviting the public to follow their journey through a newly launched website. People will be able to see images of the birds, track their incredible 5,600km migration route live and discover their fascinating stopover points along the way.
Supporters also have the opportunity to name one of the turtle doves, in an attempt to raise awareness of a bird on the brink of extinction in the UK. To find out more visit our turtle dove tracking web page.
Why are turtle doves in trouble?
Turtle doves are ecologically unique, being Europe's only long distance migratory dove. They spend just a third of the year on their breeding grounds in Europe and spend the winter on their non-breeding grounds in sub-Saharan West Africa.
There are four main factors associated with the decline of turtle doves. These include the loss of suitable habitat in both the breeding and non-breeding range, unsustainable levels of hunting on migration and disease. The Operation Turtle Dove team are working hard to understand these threats so that we can develop - and deliver - conservation solutions.
Food shortages on their breeding grounds
Research points towards the loss of suitable habitat on the UK breeding grounds and the associated food shortages for turtle doves being the most important factor driving turtle dove declines.
Research carried out in England shows that adult turtle doves are producing half as many chicks as they were in the 1970s. Unlike other dove and pigeon species in the UK, turtle doves are obligate granivores - their diet is formed exclusively of seeds. The lack of available weed seeds in the countryside, as well as dietary switch from weed seeds to cereal grains has been associated with an alarming reduction in nesting attempts. This alone is sufficient to explain the current rates of decline.
For this reason, a large component of the project is focused on establishing feeding habitat over the species core UK breeding range in East Anglia and South-East England.
Visit www.operationturtledove.org to find out more.
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. www.rspb.org.uk
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: operationturtledove.org
About the tagging:
The dimensions of the tags: Length: 24 mm; width: 14 mm; height: 7.5 mm
Antenna: Length: 213 mm. Average weight of the ten tags plus harness: 4.8 g
Why are we tracking turtle doves?
Tracking turtle doves using small, lightweight satellite tags will not only tell us where birds that breed in the UK spend the winter but also, just as importantly, the routes they take to get to Africa, and the staging sites that they use.
This information, supported by more RSPB research in the UK and in Senegal in West Africa, is crucial to developing a plan to help turtle doves in all parts of their range.
Since turtle doves that breed in the UK spend only a third of their time here, learning more about the needs of birds on migration and in Africa directly helps their conservation in the UK.
To save the turtle dove from extinction in the UK, we must know more about the issues that affect them while on migration.
How do the tags work?
The turtle doves are fitted with small satellite tags supplied by Microwave Telemetry Inc. that transmit information about their journey to RSPB conservation scientists via orbiting satellites. The tags have a rechargeable battery charged by a solar panel.
To allow time for the batteries to recharge regularly, the tags 'rest' for 48 hours between each 10-hour 'transmitting' period. When fully charged, the tags can also transmit at night or when the bird is under trees, for example.
More information about tracking turtle doves using satellite tagging technology: www.rspb.org.uk/turtledovetracking