Saturday, 30 May 2009

The old romantic

I’m up and out before the showers; while the wind has dropped, there is still a chill in the air and I am glad of my fleece. The forest remains full of bird song but some of the established pairs have fallen silent, no longer evident on faithful perches. I hope that they are on eggs or chicks and have not failed to attract a mate.

I’d been thinking over recent days that I had not yet heard a Turtle Dove, even though a friend had one just a bit further south nearly a fortnight ago. Today, however, I finally get my bird; not calling but in flight, a frantic party of three that arcs across the clearfell and circles back around. I love these birds, with their soft, soporific purring call; it is a call that reminds me of lazy summer days, the buzzing of a multitude of insects and time enough to spend wandering about the lanes.

The Turtle Dove is rather slender for a dove and it is also our only migratory pigeon, wintering in the Sahel region of Africa and running the gauntlet of Mediterranean hunters each time it journeys north or south. It is not just the guns that have taken a toll on the now rapidly declining population; African droughts and changing farming practices have played their part, making this an increasingly uncommon bird across its former range.

The Turtle Dove has impressed generations of people, from the time of Pliny the Elder (writing in AD79) right through to the present day (see Michael McCarthy’s ‘Say goodbye to the Cuckoo’). For much of this time the dove has been associated with romantic affection; it has been held up as an example of love that is devoted and true. Such an association no doubt comes from observations that Turtle Dove pairs seemingly spend little time apart, feeding together and indulging regularly in courtship preening. Chaucer, writing in about 1380, penned the lines ‘God forbid a lover should change, the turtle dove said and blushed with shame.’ Likewise, Shakespeare used the Turtle Dove to allude to enduring love in more than one of his plays. Such associations explain some of our tenderness towards this bird and they may also explain how the Turtle Dove ends up in The Twelve Days of Christmas. While this is predominantly a summer visitor to our shores, the association with true love may be sufficient to secure the Turtle Dove a place in this unseasonal yuletide rhyme. That we should place the higher human qualities in animals says something about us and our values. Perhaps this is why it always warms my heart to stumble across the Turtle Dove.

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