It’s December, and I can now safely, regretfully, say: this year is the first I’ve neither seen nor heard a Turtle Dove. What a terrible thing.
Where I grew up in Kent, there were Turtle Doves all around us. I didn’t quite take them for granted – I think I was a couple of years into my early birding life before I realised that the often-invisible source of the mellow purring had anything to do with a bird. But there were quite a few around, especially along the narrow lanes around the castle, and sometimes calling from the thicker parts of our hillside garden.
They are, truly, among the loveliest of birds. The colour palette is unlike any other – that pink, alongside the chestnut brown, the dashes of back and white, that strange silvery swatch on the neck. The fact that they like to bury themselves in the deepest thicket, and rarely parade around on your lawn (c.f. Collared Dove), and that incredible summer-song for which there really is no other reasonable description but ‘purring’.
Arriving as they do – did – in the latter part of April, the first sound of Turtle Dove always carried with it the prospect of summer coming soon. And, for me, wherever I heard them – in the depths of an ancient wood, from a downland thicket, beside a big slow river in Norfolk – it would remind me of the Weald of Kent at its most verdant, the lush corners that still evoked H.E. Bates’ Darling Buds of May.
When I arrived here, in Firle, seven years ago, Turtle Doves were still a seasonal feature. As recently as the spring of 2008, I encountered three separate birds in two days – including the first (and only) bird to make it onto my garden list.
But in each of 2010 and 2011 there were just single, fleeting glimpses. And this year, not one.
I grew up with Turtle Doves. It makes me profoundly sad to think that my children may never hear the same warm, ventriloquial sound when they go out on a summer’s evening along high-hedged lanes and wooded walks of Sussex or Kent.
When I first started learning about birds, the stories of species going extinct – Red-backed Shrikes, Wrynecks, Stone Curlews – felt an age away. We haven’t quite lost a common countryside species so completely in the last 30 years, even if we have lost one in five birds overall since 1966 – but it appears that we’re now on the brink, with species such as Cuckoo and Turtle Dove.
I am sad about that. And angry. If we can’t save these birds, these beautiful, characterful, iconic birds, that are so much a part of our landscape and our shared history, what hope for the Spotted Flycatchers, the Grasshopper Warblers, the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, of our world? What hope for anything else?