Churchyard Nature Note with Andrew Tompsett

July 2016

The voice of the turtle’

The coming of summer is as welcome today as it was in Biblical times and the Song of Solomon equates the passing of winter with the coming of flowers and the cooing of turtle (doves) in the land. Doves and pigeons, species unspecified, were of great importance in Biblical times and are mentioned over 50 times in the bible, sometimes to describe the Holy Spirit, as at Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan, or as an example of innocence and gentleness, or of hope as when the dove returned to Noah’s ark carrying a green shoot in its beak. Unacceptable to us today was the use of a pair of birds as a sacrifice to gain purification. Doves and pigeons were mainly used by those who lacked the means to offer cattle, sheep or goats.

It is a sad fact that the Turtle Dove is now a very rare bird in Britain due in part to the shooting of this species during migration over the Mediterranean – Malta is the worst offender in this respect.

The doves we are most likely to see or hear cooing in the churchyard today will be the Collared Dove which has a song consisting of 3 ‘coo-notes’ which, at a distance, can be mistaken for the two note call of the cuckoo. Its plumage is fawn-grey overall with a black ring round its neck. This Eurasian Collared Dove is an interesting immigrant species from Asia which first bred here in 1955 since when it was introduced to America and in just 50 years it is now present over most of Britain and much of North America. Being non-migratory it can be seen here throughout the year and following its rapid spread numbers are now said to have stabilised.

Perhaps its further increase has been halted by the continuing expansion of our Woodpigeon population. These robust birds are heartily disliked by growers of brassica crops which pigeons eat and foul especially in cold winters when other green stuff may be covered in snow. Both Woodpigeon and Collared Dove nest mainly in low trees and build a thin platform of twigs on which their two white eggs can often be seen from below. Both are very dependent on bird tables for winter food and as a result they may be seen nesting and raising young at any time of year.

Like the Woodpigeon, Feral (Town) Pigeons and racing birds can also cause damage by feeding on young crops such as oil-seed rape and other seedlings on farms, gardens and allotments and their numbers can cause annoyance in cities where food and nesting places are generally available for them. Some cities, Bristol for example, have encouraged a pair of Peregrine Falcons to occupy tall buildings in the city to reduce the numbers of Town pigeons and some airports and land-fill sites have also used falcons to good effect.

King James translators of the bible just used the word ‘turtle’ for the name of the bird, which may seem strange to us. One authority claims that ‘turtle’ was the actual name of the bird based upon its call ‘tur tur’. Darwin was very interested in doves and pigeons because cross breeding by pigeon fanciers have created so many different forms.

Meanwhile in our churchyard the volunteers work goes on to keep it as beautiful and interesting as ever. Many species of young birds are now fledging and leaving the nest. Should you come across a young bird which appears to be lost, please resist the temptation to pick it up. The parents will hear its cries and will soon come to feed it. The best way you can help would be to keep your cat indoors as much as possible until the end of July.

Andrew Tompsett

Photo Source   (Wikipedia)