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Two Turtle Doves

Dear Bird Folks,

I would like to know about Turtle Doves, the ones that are mentioned in the song the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” If you don’t know this song, you should, it’s full of birds. I couldn’t find Turtle Doves in any of our bird books. My older brother told me the reason why they aren’t in the bird books is because Turtle Doves are really turtles and not birds. Of course I don’t believe him, they must be birds, but that’s all I know.

-Jason, 6th grade, Bloomington, MN


You are very wise Jason,

It is never a good idea to believe anything an older brother tells you, without first getting it verified by a second or even a third source. Brothers tend to have their own idea of what the truth is. Big brothers are good to have around if a bully is picking on you or if they can drive and you need a ride someplace, but that’s about it. The rest of the time it’s best to use caution, unless your brother happens to be Wally Cleaver. (Ask your parents who he is.)

Yes, I’m familiar with the Twelve Days of Christmas. I know all the songs with birds in the lyrics. I listen to “Rockin’ Robin” every morning before I go to work. But I am surprised that kids are still singing the original Twelve Days of Christmas. I thought by now there would be some new hip-hop version, where the French hens and the laying geese are replaced by gold teeth and silver neck chains. When you think about it, the song really does need to be updated. I know you are only in the 6th grade, Jason, but at some point you’ll find yourself a “true love.” When that happens I don’t suggest you give her “ten lords a-leaping.” That’s a pretty weird gift for any occasion, but especially at Christmas. In fact, I don’t even know where you can buy leaping lords anymore. They may still be available in Bloomington, but around here the last store that sold them closed years ago.

Of course Turtle Doves are real birds. The reason why you couldn’t find them in your bird books is because Turtle Doves don’t live in North America. They are from Europe, where the Twelve Days of Christmas, and a bunch of other odd songs, probably originated. Turtle Doves are roughly the same shape and size as our Mourning Dove, but whereas our dove is rather generic looking, the Turtle Dove has some rather handsome and diagnostic field marks. It’s wings have a warm cinnamon color and there is white and black striping on each side of the neck.

So why are they called Turtle Doves? Contrary to your brother’s reptile theory, the bird’s name has nothing to do with real turtles. Like our Mourning Dove, which earned its name from its mournful song, the Turtle Dove’s song also figures in its name. The Turtle Dove’s song is a deep, gentle “purr, purr.” To some people’s ears the song sounds more like “turr, turr,” which caused them to refer to the bird as “Turr-tle Dove.” The purr, purr people didn’t argue, because calling the bird Purr-tle Dove was just too weird.

In the summer Turtle Doves can be found across much of Europe where they nest in bushes and hedgerows, around fields and farms. Unfortunately, changes in agricultural practices have caused the population of this bird to plummet rather dramatically. The use of herbicides to remove weeds and other unwanted vegetation has impacted the birds’ food source. The doves live on weed seeds and without the weeds, many baby birds starve from lack of food. (Hang on. Did I just write that they “starve from lack of food”? Ooops, I may have momentarily turned into Yogi Berra. Once again, Jason, ask your parents.)

In the fall the doves leave Europe and migrate to Africa. Migration presents another problem for them. Thousands of birds are shot on their way south, by both legal and illegal hunters. Once they reach Africa they are still in danger of being shot by hungry Africans. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has officially “red listed” the Turtle Dove, meaning the bird’s population is dropping so rapidly that action must be taken quickly or the birds may soon become yet another ghost of Christmas past.

While we are on the topic of the Twelve Days of Christmas, here is something else that needs to be straightened out. In that song, on day number four, the correct line is “Four collie birds,” not “Four calling birds.” The song is not about four birds talking on cell phones, but collie birds. Collie means “black,” in some European language. On day number four the true love is getting four blackbirds. Better tell your older brother about the blackbirds, Jason, before he starts telling people that collie birds are birds that fly around barking like Lassie.