Turtle doves be warned – it’s a war out there!

Turtle dove in St Ouen's Bay. Photo by Miranda CollettWe have seen in our reports on this website that the exact causes of declines in turtle doves in our part of the world are not fully established. While changes in farming practices that have reduced traditional feeding opportunities and the risk of novel diseases from related species like the collared dove are undoubtedly implicated, continuing pressure from ‘sport’ hunters on the doves’ migration routes are a major factor, if not in the decline, certainly in preventing the population from recovering.

Turtle dove distribution map

European turtle dove distribution map from Plant of Birds http://www.planetofbirds.com/columbiformes-columbidae-turtle-dove-streptopelia-turtur

The European turtle dove is not yet considered globally threatened and has a very large range but in Europe it is considered to have an unfavourable conservation status, a status that may be confused by those, probably uncertain, numbers outside of the region (species account here). In the UK, where the turtle dove population has seen a 95% decrease it is given the RED status of a species whose population or range has declined rapidly in recent years, or that has declined historically and not shown a substantial recent recovery. In Jersey is too has RED status.

Our turtle doves are migratory, visiting us for just the spring and early summer. While the exact routes that our turtle doves take are unknown, in order for them to get to and from their wintering areas south of the Sahara, most European birds must pass through narrow sea crossings, safe areas, to avoid lengths of open water. These ‘safe’ areas are anything but safe.

Jersey’s birds would most likely have gone south through France and Spain before flying across Morocco. Birds from further east in Europe go through the islands of the Mediterranean including Malta and Cyprus. These islands lie on one of the main flyways of wild bird migration (over 384 bird species have been recorded in Malta). The importance of these islands to European bird populations like that of the turtle dove mean that they should be treasured.

Turtle dove. Photo by Mick dryden

However, the large scale shooting and trapping of birds during migration through Malta and parts of Cyprus are well known to conservationists right across Europe, and to anyone who has visited. During the spring and autumn, thousands of migrating and resident birds are shot indiscriminately. Further, thousands of small songbirds are trapped to be caged or for the table. An analysis of international ringing recoveries of 75 species, from 35 countries, showed individuals that had been killed in Malta (report here). Many of these birds, like turtle doves, were rare or declining species, species that only have small numbers of young and take several years to reach sexual maturity. Birds that we and millions like us had cared for and protected during the breeding season!

The impact of hunting pressures on European bird populations can have serious repercussions on their conservation status. This hunting, much of it Illegal, is therefore an international issue that affects the breeding birds of almost all countries in Europe. Malta is an EU country and spring hunting and trapping is expressly forbidden by the Birds Directive. However, exceptions can be made and despite widescale disapproval elsewhere in Europe (see e.g. Chris Packham’s blog with videos here) it goes on.

Cyprus Base (Akrotiri and Dhekelia) is a British Overseas Territory which makes it very disappointing then that the numbers of trapped songbirds illegally killed there reached an estimated 900,000 birds in 2014 (report here) – the highest level recorded in 12 years.

Comparative figures reported for the Republic of Cyprus reveal that illegal bird trapping elsewhere on the island is still an issue (reports here), but the figures have reduced since 2002. The light of bad publicity is rightly being shone on Malta and Cyprus. Encouragingly, the Base Area authorities have recently signed up to a Cyprus Strategic Action Plan on illegal bird trapping.

Turtle dove hunting

Photo of legal turtle dove hunting from International Safari Corporation website http://www.safariinternational.com/en/small-game/passege-game/335-morocco-turtle-doves

Law enforcement throughout the islands is a key problem as authorities are under-resourced and under-staffed. What can we do? Please support the efforts of the local bird conservationists who often work under pressures that we couldn’t start to imagine here. BirdLife Malta and BirdLife Cyprus need support from all of us so check their websites and sign up to their newsletters. Keep up to date too through Mark Avery’s blog and Birders Against Wildlife Crime.

While the Eastern Mediterranean receives much publicity for its bird hunting, it does go on in the west where turtle doves can, in places, be hunted legally under strict conditions. Hunting trips to shoot (our?) turtle doves in Spain and Morocco (here and here) are freely advertised – that’s some holiday!