Spring treasure 11: The Turtle Dove

4/6/2018 Almost two years ago I wrote of a sound that I associated with childhood summers in Suffolk, but that was now missing from my garden: the purring song of the turtle dove. I read, then, that their numbers had decreased by more than 90% since the 1960s; now, I have found a figure of 93% since 1994. Forgetting momentarily that these are migrating birds that spend their winters in Africa, I thought it was yet another indication of the devastating effects of the changes in our farming practices in the last half century. These may have caused some of their problems, but clearly they are not the whole picture.

I have been listening out for the turtle dove ever since I became aware of its absence. Every time I thought I might have heard one and stopped to listen, I realised it was actually a wood pigeon: they also ‘purr’ sometimes, in addition to their usual cooing song.

Last year I may have seen a juvenile turtle dove. I couldn’t be 100% sure, but I did eliminate every other possible dove or pigeon from my enquiries. It was too far away to photograph, but I spent a long time examining it through binoculars and comparing it with photographs, and it seemed the only likely candidate. I didn’t hear any though, and adults are usually only heard, not seen.

I had more or less given up hope. And then, on the last day of May this year, I took a break from cello practice and through the open sitting room door, I thought – but didn’t dare hope – I heard the sound I was waiting for. I listened and waited. I told my noisy chicken to be quiet, to no avail. I took a video clip – my phone was the nearest sound recording device to hand – so that I could compare it to recordings online.

There was no doubt at all: it was a turtle dove. I have had to replay the clip several times since to convince myself that it was real: I heard it, I didn’t imagine it, and I didn’t mistake another species for a turtle dove. And then yesterday I heard it again.

Not long ago, I came across a list of questions in a book that included: ‘what is the greatest happiness you can imagine?’ I am all too aware of how privileged I am not to have to answer, ‘having a home’, ‘not having to worry about paying the bills’, or, ‘being healthy again’. On the eighth anniversary of my mother’s death, it occurs to me that I might well answer, ‘having my parents back, without losing the life lessons of the past eight years’. But somehow it seems too selfish; too fleeting. Not to mention completely impossible: when it happens in my dreams, it is disturbing, not joyful, precisely because I know it is impossible. And it isn’t the answer that came to me at the time.

The greatest happiness I can imagine would be waking up in the morning and hearing on the news that studies showed Britain’s insect and wildlife population had increased by 75%, instead of having declined by 75% (or much more, in many cases). I know this is a dream – though theoretically not quite as impossible as people returning from the dead – and if it were ever to happen, it wouldn’t be sudden but very gradual. Included in my dream, of course, is the assumption that Britain would be representative of the whole world. My happiness would include a huge increase in rainforest cover and in threatened animal populations, the reversal of climate change and the absence of pollution and rubbish in the world’s oceans. We would never again hear the sickening news of a young pilot whale dying as a result of having swallowed eight plastic bags.

We don’t live in that dream world. Perhaps no human ever will; our extinction may be the condition of such a remarkable recovery. So I’ll settle for something a little smaller.

A turtle dove in my garden isn’t a bad second best.