European turtle dove named Bird of the Year

European turtle dove, photo: ČTK/PR/řej Prosický

The Czech Society for Ornithology has announced that 2019’s Bird of the Year is the European turtle dove. The bird, which has a strong footprint in Czech culture, is currently on hard times with population numbers reduced by more than two thirds since the early 1980s.

European turtle dove,  photo: ČTK/PR/řej Prosický

Late evening, on the first of May—
The twilit May—the time of love.
Meltingly called the turtle-dove,
Where rich and sweet pinewoods lay.

Thus begins Karel Hynek Mácha’s Máj, a poem whose opening passages can be recited by almost every Czech. The turtle dove, which it mentions has become a symbolic love-bird in Czech culture and it can be identified by its distinctive call.

Now the European turtle dove has also been named the bird of the year by the Czech Society for Ornithology.

Not for sentimental reasons however, but for its endangered status, says ornithologist Petr Voříšek.

“It’s declining and not only in Czechia, but everywhere in Europe. In Czechia, for example, we have lost something like 70 percent of the population since the beginning of the 1980s. Usually with Bird of the Year we want to raise public awareness to important issues relating to bird conservation and the European turtle dove problem is typical for one of the biggest issues - land management and land use.”

The population of the species now numbers between 40,000 – 80,000 breeding pairs in the Czech Republic. Hunting the European turtle dove is illegal in the Czech Republic and the EU is trying to push through the ban across all member states.

European turtle dove,  photo: David King,  CC BY 2.0
According to the director of the Czech Society for Ornithology Zdeněk Vermouzek, the number of European turtle doves that die as a result of hunting lies somewhere between 1.5 to 2.2 million. But hunting bans are not going to be enough to do the trick, says Mr. Voříšek.

“Basically, the turtle dove is losing its natural habitat in our countryside. It is losing the bushes where it breeds, it is losing meadows where it feeds and it is also losing the source of food itself, because it feeds mostly on weeds. Our system of intensive agriculture is the primary cause. Combating this is extremely difficult, because you cannot make a national park out of the whole country, so it is very much down to how farmers manage the land.”

According to the ornithologists, farmers can help by creating boundaries and earmarking specific areas where the turtle doves can nest and find food.

Birds particularly benefit when agriculture is diversified and the size of one crop does not exceed 20 hectares.

The Czech Society for Ornithology has penned a special petition that urges politicians to motivate farmers by amending agricultural funding to support diversification and water retention in soil. But, for those among the public who want to get involved, there is also an opportunity.

A special search for the European turtle dove is being organised on May 1st, where people are encouraged to go into the wild and note down the number of turtle doves they come across, says Mr. Voříšek.

“We invite people just to go to the countryside and note down the European turtle doves they see. This includes writing down the negatives as well, such as not finding any. This will help raise more public attention as well.”

It is no coincidence that the turtle dove search is taking place on this day. May 1st is known in the country as the day of lovers and Mácha’s poem featuring the turtle dove is traditionally recited.