Following the Turtle-Dove’s Trail

Researchers tracked the travels of a heroic bird to solve the mystery of the doves’ shocking decline in the U.K.

After spending nine months abroad, Titan was ready for a homecoming. Last month he touched back down in Suffolk, England, oblivious to all the fanfare surrounding his return. The bold European Turtle-dove had just unwittingly carried out a mission to map his own migration—the first time a member of his species had been tracked successfully from start to finish. It was a moment of triumph for researchers who are trying to figure out why the European Turtle-dove, a once-prolific bird, is on such a terrible downward spiral.

In terms of sheer numbers, turtle-dove populations are still healthy across their wide range—they breed throughout most of the European continent and into central Asia, and winter in sub-Saharan Africa. But more than half of the countries in the European Union have reported massive population losses, between 30 percent and 49 percent in the past 16 years.

Efforts to save the species from local endangerment are underway in some places, but no region has taken on the challenge with more ardor than the United Kingdom—with good cause. Since 1970 the U.K. population has been reduced by half every six years, and has dropped an alarming 96 percent overall.

“At this rate it’s not ridiculous to say the bird may be gone from Britain in the next 10 years,” says Danae Sheehan, the Migrants Programme Manager for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. She says that in the United Kingdom, this disappearance rate is due mostly to agricultural development in the dove’s breeding grounds.

The U.K. Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 was set in place to guard the elegant columbid within national borders, but the species is not well protected across the rest of Europe. Turtle-doves are listed under The Birds Directive, which shields them from hunters during breeding and migration seasons; many countries, however, don’t stick to this rule.

Additional pressures like disease may be intensifying the problem. In a 2013 study by the University of Leeds and the RSPB, 86 percent of sampled Turtle and Collared doves carried Trichomonas gallinae, or “pigeon-canker”—a parasite that is often fatal to young social birds.

Whatever the cause, researchers are looking for a way to pull Titan and his kin back from the brink. In May 2012 multiple U.K. environmental groups, including the RSPB, Conservation Grade, the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, and Natural England, came together to found Operation Turtle Dove. They were desperate to uncover the mysteries behind the dove’s decline and take the necessary actions to save it. Turtle-doves spend most of their time outside the United Kingdom, and little is known about their international excursions. “We selfishly think of these birds as ‘ours,’ which isn’t really a productive or correct way to look at the matter, and lets major factors go overlooked,” says Sheehan.

Traditional tracking methods like “ringing”—the equivalent to bird banding—yield a patchy view on migration, since each point on the map represents a spot where a dove is captured. It’s difficult to cover massive distances with a network of trained banders, meaning whole sections of the birds’ journey go undocumented. Where are they stopping to refuel? How long are they lingering in each place? These are just two of the questions that scientists were trying to answer.

“We had some idea where the doves went, but there was serious bias and holes in the data—a lot of points were simply where the bird had been shot,” says John Mallord, a conservation scientist who manages Operation Turtle Dove’s tagging projects through the RSPB. “That’s why we wanted to adopt satellite live-tracking devices, to fill in the gaps independent of humans.”

In 2012 the group fitted five doves with five-gram satellite trackers that would transmit the birds’ coordinates. The solar-powered trackers stay live for 10 hours, then rest for 48, allowing the batteries to recharge. The tiny rucksack-like devices are fixed to the bird with a braided-nylon harness.

Unfortunately the first trial didn’t last long. By October all five transmitters were down. One dove was lost during breeding season, likely to predation. Three others went MIA over Europe—the first taking a strange detour through Switzerland, the next two disappearing over France and Spain. The final dove made it as far as Western Sahara before going offline.

But the team persevered, tagging two new doves last summer. One of the newcomers, caught in RSPB volunteer Heather Maclean’s garden in rural Suffolk, was a real hotshot. Maclean named him Titan, after the powerful clan of Greek gods, since he was such a tough specimen.

Titan spent his summer gorging on food and chasing after females before setting off on his epic trek across the English Channel in the third week of September. He and the other tagged dove headed toward France and northern Spain, but trouble arose early. Bird No. 2 pulled a vanishing act, flying east before disappearing for good on October 1.

Titan had a few more transmission hiccups but eventually made it to his final wintering grounds, in Mali. He split his stay between the eastern border of Senegal and the Malian capital of Bamako.

On May 19, after seven months, he began his journey back to England. Taking the express route this time, he entered Europe nearly two weeks later by cutting across the Strait of Gibraltar. On the night of June 21, a tired Titan returned to Maclean’s garden—landing just a few hundred meters from the spot he first took off from—and settled in.

The team at Operation Turtle Dove learned a lot from Titan’s trip. He racked up about 7,000 miles, averaging 310 to 435 miles a day and flying at speeds as high as 37 mph. The locations of Titan’s stopover grounds and two wintering spots in Mali (within a radius of 800 to 5,000 feet or so) were also disclosed, Mallord says. Highlighting these precise locations is useful for targeted conservation. “You can’t just begin conserving at random and hope for success, but that’s basically what we had to do before,” says Sheehan. “Now we can move forward with pinpointed locations, spaces, and habitats—an actual plan.”

Titan also showed that Turtle-doves might be resting in danger zones like France, where an estimated 40,000 doves are killed by hunters annually, and Spain, which poses similar threats, along with droughts, heat waves, and even hailstorms. In North Africa, the birds face local and foreign hunters alike.

This new information will help define the next phases of the mission, as the U.K. groups join forces with organizations along the migration route, most of which are associated with BirdLife International or Birds Without Borders. Projects are being undertaken near Titan’s staging grounds in Senegal to investigate the specific threats doves face after their long treks. Studies will also look at the stability of the dove’s food and water resources, plus their ability to withstand extreme weather. These endeavors will also focus on uniting the people already invested in Turtle-doves while educating those who are interested but not yet involved, Sheehan says.

Public awareness and educational programs have already kicked off in the United Kingdom. This March, Operation Turtle Dove published dove-friendly guidelines for farmers and gardeners. Recommendations include planting and protecting the native hedges, especially the thorned varieties, and climbing vines the Turtle-dove prefers to nest it.

The birds, which are granivores and eat seeds almost exclusively, love grassland plants. The dove’s favorites—common mouse-ear, annual knotgrass, and chickweed—are generally weeded out on farms that depend on monoculture crops and the routine use of pesticides and herbicides.

The English countryside was once filled with the chorus of cooing doves, a sound that has grown quieter in recent years. Despite decades of losses, Sheehan and Mallord are confident there’s still time for the Turtle-dove. “What seems like a fated tale isn’t,” Sheehan says. In fall Titan will likely begin his voyage anew, with additional accomplices to help him, giving scientists a more complete picture of the route. But for now he’s got a busy few weeks ahead of him—playing the role of Romeo, then devoted dad, before once again transforming into a marathon flyer.

Listen to the sounds of European Turtle-doves, courtesy of xeno-canto.