farmland birds

Turtle doves and turtles

I had always assumed that turtle doves were named after turtles because of the tortoiseshell patterns on their wings. This is a natural hypothesis to anybody familiar with what a European turtle dove (Streptopelia turtur) looks like (see the picture below).

If you know what a European turtle dove sounds like, however, a different hypothesis might suggest itself. Its call is quite different from the “coo” of other familiar pigeons and doves. It’s a vibrating, purring sound, customarily transcribed as “turr-turr”, which is striking to the listener and easily distinguished from the call of any other bird.

The ancient Romans named the turtle dove the turtur due to its call, and this name was borrowed into Old English; it’s attested first in the Vespasian Psalter, from c. 825, and last in a book from 1649. However it was soon dissimilated to turtle, paralleling Spanish tórtola. This form is attested first in the Paris Psalter from c. 1000. It appears in the King James Bible, where the bird’s song is mentioned as a herald of summertime (European turtle doves winter in West Africa; the name “European turtle dove” is really quite parochial):

The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land. (Song of Solomon 2:12)

The turtle dove is sadly less often heard as a herald of summertime in Europe today, as its population has declined greatly in recent times and it is classified as vulnerable by the IUCN. It’s not wholly understood why the decline has occurred but the loss of habitat (due to modern agricultural practices; turtle doves are farmland birds) and overhunting probably have something to do with it.

A few centuries after turtle, the compound turtle dove starts appearing in English texts, and today this has replaced turtle as the only current word for the species. It has also been applied to birds of other species, such as, in North America, Zenaida macroura, which ornithologists call the mourning dove. Mourning doves lack a tortoiseshell pattern on their wings, but of course, now we know that the name “turtle dove” has nothing to do with that. In appearance the European bird which mourning doves most closely resemble is really the collared dove (Streptopelia decaocto), but the collared dove actually wouldn’t have been known to the first English-speaking American colonists; collared doves were absent from most of Europe (except for the southeast) before their range started dramatically expanding in the middle 20th century (it’s still expanding—collared doves have recently arrived in North America, where they may end up competing with mourning doves).

So where does the name of the reptiles we call turtles today come from? Well, it’s a little mysterious. The classical Latin word for tortoises was testūdō (I don’t know if they had a different word for sea turtles), but in Late Latin there appears a synonym tortūca, perhaps a derivative of tortus ‘twisted’, from which most of the Romance words are derived (e.g. French tortue). English tortoise (first attested 1398, as tortuce, c. 1440 as tortu, 1484 as tortose) is said by the OED to be from the same source; the final -s may have come from the genitive -’s suffix by backformation from tortue’s shell. Note that the pronunciation with /-ɔjs/ in the second syllable is a spelling pronunciation; the original pronunciation, still current, is with schwa. Originally tortoise referred to all members of the order Testudines, the sea turtles (sea tortoises) of the family Cheloniidae included. The OED still gives this as the definition of tortoise but the entry is now probably obsolete. It’s therefore not implausible that the -oi- spelling is due to the influence of porpoise, from Latin porcopiscis 'pig-fish’, another word for a marine animal.

The word turtle is first attested in 1657 as a word for reptiles of the family Cheloniidae. The OED says that it is “apparently” a corruption of tortue influenced by turtle 'turtle dove’. However, it seems plausible enough to me that they were independently named after the turtle dove, due to the mottled pattern on their shells (most striking in sea turtles; tortoiseshell material was most commonly produced from the hawksbill sea turtle Eretmochelys imbricata) being reminiscent of a turtle dove’s wing colouration. In that case the turtle dove’s name would be connected to the tortoiseshell pattern on its wings—just not in the way I thought.

Since its coinage, turtle has competed with tortoise for the inclusion of reptiles of the order Chelonia in its denotation and it has tended to win its battles. The OED mentions that the sea turtles are often distinguished from the other reptiles of the order Testudines, and not considered to be tortoises, and also that the word turtle may be extended to refer to reptiles of the order Testudines that inhabit freshwater environments as well, although some zoologists, while still eschewing the word tortoise for these, prefer to use a third word, terrapin (from Algonquian). In modern English, apparently too recently for the OED to mention it, turtle has become the usual, zoologist-approved word for all reptiles of the order Testudines in North American usage, with the words tortoise and terrapin, if used at all, being regarded as words for particular varieties of turtle. In British usage a three-way distinction between (sea) turtles, (freshwater) terrapins and (land) turtles is still usually made.


Juvenile starlings massing on my roof this week.

At this time of year their numbers have been bolstered by the new generation…..some of which noisily fledged above my bedroom window twice this summer.  You can tell which ones are this year’s youngsters, as they still have their pale-brown heads.  By winter they will have adopted the darker, oily-looking plumage of their parents.

We’ve always had a healthy population of starlings up here.  They flock together in a small murmuration of several hundred individuals all year round and are one of my favourite spectacles in the Lomond Hills.


The WWF and the Zoological Society of London have released a new analysis that shows the earth has lost 50% of its vertebrate wildlife in the last 40 years.

This steep decline of vertebrates was calculated by analysing 10,000 populations of more than 3,000 species. The data was then used to create a ‘Living Planet Index’ (LPI), to reflect the state of all 45,000 known species of vertebrates. And the result is this - in the last 40 years, we have managed to kill 50% of all earth’s known vertebrates. And remember, this analysis didn’t include invertebrates, so the total overall loss could be much, much higher.

The fastest declines are in freshwater ecosystems, where numbers have dropped 75% since 1970. Freshwater rivers often represent the end of a system, where effluent often ends up.

The graph above shows the causes of vertebrate decline based on analysis of 3,430 species’ populations. As it stands, we are cutting down trees for soy, timber, and beef faster than they can grow. We are hunting animals faster than they can reproduce. We are pumping water out of rivers faster than rainfall can replenish them. And we are pumping out carbon faster than can be absorbed (and even then, the absorption of carbon dioxide by oceans is another issue).

The photos above show just some of the animals that have been experienced serious declines in the last 40 years. As reported by The Guardian:

David Nussbaum, chief executive of WWF-UK said: “The scale of the destruction highlighted in this report should be a wake-up call for us all. But 2015 – when the countries of the world are due to come together to agree on a new global climate agreement, as well as a set of sustainable development goals – presents us with a unique opportunity to reverse the trends.

“We all – politicians, businesses and people – have an interest, and a responsibility, to act to ensure we protect what we all value: a healthy future for both people and nature.”

One of my absolute favorite parts of my trip were the Bempton Cliffs. A good stretch of the east coast of the UK ends drastically in chalk cliffs that go straight down into the North Sea. Hundreds of puffins and thousands of sea fowl make these unbelievable cliffs their home. The thing that I love the most, though, was how the land is perfectly flat farmland for miles and miles, covered in cows and sheep and fields of grain, but then it all just ends in a matter of feet. It’s one of the most incredible things I have even seen.