Giving Turtle Doves a helping hand at home and abroad

Turtle Doves feature in seasonal celebrations but you may be surprised to hear they are not found in the UK in winter. We take a closer look at Turtle Doves and celebrate the fantastic conservation work that is helping these now rare birds.

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A Turtle Dove stares back at the camera against a green background.
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Dainty doves 

Turtle Doves are smaller and daintier relatives of the Collared Doves and Woodpigeons that you might be more familiar with. Turtle Doves have a beautiful chestnut checkerboard pattern on their wings and black and white stripes on their necks. They give a distinctive ‘purring’ or ‘turr-turr’ call, which is where both their English and scientific names come from.   

Turtle Doves are often used as a symbol of love and fidelity and have long been part of our cultural heritage, featuring in literature, art, music and film, including in a number of Shakespeare’s plays, the 12 Days of Christmas, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly songs.

Winter on the savannah 

At the very time that people are singing about two Turtle Doves on cold, dark, wintry days, the birds are actually out in the hot savannah landscapes of West Africa, where they roost in thorny thickets and feed in nearby farmland and grassland.  

Turtle Doves only visit the UK in spring and summer. They fly thousands of miles to reach us, navigating the Sahara Desert and flying up through Spain, Portugal and France. They return to Africa via a similar route in autumn.  

Turtle Dove essentials

In the UK, Turtle Doves are now mainly restricted to eastern and south-east England. They typically use farmland habitats where they need three key elements: a place to nest, seeds to eat and water for drinking and bathing.  

Their nests are not much more than a collection of twigs, but they are built in dense scrub and hedgerows which provide the shelter they rely on to raise their young.  

They feed almost entirely on seeds, which means they need a plentiful supply of flowering plants. Their dry diet also means that they need a good supply of water. 

The evidence shows that when we provide Turtle Doves with good breeding season habitats, we’re automatically helping a whole host of other farmland wildlife as well. For example, birds like Nightingales, Bullfinches, and many warblers benefit from scrubby nesting habitat and pollinators benefit from flower-rich habitats. 

A hoverfly perched on a pink flower amongst greenery.

In need of a helping hand

Turtle Dove numbers in the UK have plummeted by an estimated 99% since their peak around 1970. Scientific research has shown that a loss of breeding season habitats that provide seed food for the doves played a major part in their decline.  

To help the species recover we know we need to address two key issues. Firstly, we must provide them with better quality breeding habitats, particularly feeding opportunities, so that they can produce more chicks each year. Secondly, we must see an end to unsustainable levels of hunting along their flyway in south-west Europe.

Operation Turtle Dove

Operation Turtle Dove is a partnership between Fair to Nature, Natural England, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and the RSPB, dedicated to turning the fortunes of this special bird around. Operation Turtle Dove has been researching the reasons behind Turtle Dove declines, testing what conservation measures can best help the birds and now work is well-progressed to put these measures into place. 

Incredible efforts

Through working with landowners and managers, communities, partners and volunteers, Operation Turtle Dove is encouraging people to create Turtle Dove habitat across eastern and south-east England, including on farms, orchards, golf courses and community greenspaces.  

Operation Turtle Dove’s team of advisors helps people to provide flower-rich feeding habitat, accessible water and good quality scrub and hedgerow nesting habitats, as well as providing extra seed food for the birds when they return in spring.  

In 2023, these expert advisors worked with 370 farmers and land managers to provide an amazing 230 hectares of suitable feeding habitat for Turtle Doves. That’s the equivalent of around 323 football pitches of prime Turtle Dove habitat! 

A sweeping verge of poppies in a field with trees behind

Spreading their wings

We share ‘our’ Turtle Doves with countries along their migratory route or ‘flyway’ and have a responsibility to do everything we can to support them whilst they are here. But to help migratory birds we must work along their entire flyway, not just within a single country.  

Turtle Doves have been legally hunted in several European countries for a long time. Up to 2018, around one million Turtle Doves were being hunted each autumn across just three of these: France, Spain and Portugal. Research showed that this was far from sustainable for the entire western European breeding population (including those in the UK), all of which migrate through these three countries. But thanks to international cooperation and a science-led approach, there has been no Turtle Dove hunting in these three countries for the last three years; helping give the birds safe passage and their population a chance to recover. 

With this suspension of hunting in place, the time to accelerate our efforts for Turtle Doves here in the UK is now. And that’s why it’s so encouraging to see so many people pulling together to provide habitats for these birds.  

Hope for the future

Whilst Turtle Dove numbers have been in decline, we know exactly how to help them and we’re doing just that. Helping species recover is a process that takes many years, but we’ve already reversed downward trends for other farmland birds like Stone-curlew and Cirl Bunting using science-led approaches. We have the solutions, and with a little patience and continued effort, this is a fight we will win.  

Our immense thanks go out to everyone involved in supporting this work. Together we’re helping to ensure the birds have the perfect conditions waiting for them when they arrive from Africa next spring.  

To find out more, visit

Two Turtle Doves perched on a fence with bushes and trees in the background.
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