One was calling immediately we arrived. The song came on the wind, lost when the breeze got up to a susurration in the grasses and trees, but then clear and gently there. It came and went for just long enough to confirm what we thought we’d heard, something of an aeolian making.
There are some birds my wife and I seek out every year, now with our young daughter too. They are the markers of seasons, and intimate elements of those places we have come to know so well in our home county of Kent. In winter we hope for fieldfares, Arctic swans, and short-eared owls. In spring, nightingales arrive in late April to the ancient Wealden forests nearby, swifts arrive suddenly and nest in the eaves of the old houses in our street, cuckoos and nightjars sing and breed in scrubland just down the road.
Of all these birds, though, it might be the turtle dove we yearn for most. Regrettably, we seek turtle doves each year because we fear each year might be the last. Nearly all the birds that come to our shores for one season or another are in trouble, but the turtle dove is in such serious jeopardy that there is a very real chance this species will be extinct in the UK before my daughter has a chance to see, hear, know this bird for herself.
Turtle doves have declined by 91% since 1995. That’s well within my lifetime. I’m not old enough to recall a time when this species was ever plentiful, but I know they are harder and harder to find in general. Where we live in Kent there is lots of ideal habitat for them, with expansive, untidy hedgerows and shaw boundaries between fields. And yet the birds just aren’t here. It feels deserted. Turtle doves, more than any other bird, make me think of a lost legacy I have never experienced, and never will: the overwhelming abundance of life and song and colour that once was.
For now, at least, we know one or two untidy spots in the north of our county where we can still hear turtle doves. Momentarily we can forget the sombre narrative of loss and enjoy the hazy summer evocation of their song. All our pigeon species convey something of this: it’s in the ease and rhythm of a wood pigeon’s throaty cooing, or even the collared dove’s early-morning tiresome intonation. But it’s the turtle dove’s purring, like a chorister’s tongue-rolled ‘rrrrr’ or contented feline slumber, that most conjurs high-summer, drowsy days. Everything about turtle doves seems understated. Their song is soft and delicate, and their uncertain futures as fragile, as their suffuse, exquisite plumage.
That day we found the birds was scorching August-heat at the end of May. We moved further along the coast for lunch, and settled for an hour or two between estuary creeks and dense hawthorn scrub. A lone nightingale gave a late-season burst, and then, just audible on the wind, another turtle dove’s pink purring song.