European Turtle Doves have long been a symbol of Christmas holiday celebrations. Best known for the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” the turtle dove’s first connection to the Christian holiday actually dates back to the birth of Jesus as depicted in the Bible.
Representing innocence, purity and enduring love, turtle dove lore throughout the ages is well documented in such noted authors’ works as William Shakespeare. In his famous poem about the death of ideal love, “The Phoenix and the Turtle,” the title isn’t named for the reptile, but for the turtle dove instead.
While turtle dove imagery is featured prominently in books, poems and songs, the general term “turtle dove” does not actually refer to any one specific bird, but rather a group of Old World doves including the Mourning Dove, Ringed Turtle Dove, and most specifically the European Turtle Dove. Here in the United States you are most likely to see the Mourning Dove and the Ringed Turtle Dove in your back yard depending on where you live.
A distinctive band of color on the top of the neck makes it look like the dove is capable of drawing its head into the neck, like a turtle – hence the term turtle dove. European Turtle Doves are light gray to brown with black spotting on their wings and white tail feathers. A typical adult male turtle dove has bright pink patches on the sides of his neck with a light pink coloring that reaches his breast. The crown of the adult male turtle dove is very distinguishable because of its bluish-gray color. While females are similar in appearance, they have more brown in their feathers and are a bit smaller in size. Juvenile turtle doves look striking like adult females only darker in color.
This graceful bird has an interesting mating ritual. The male begins by flying and gliding with his wings outstretched and head down. After he lands, the male will approach the female with a puffed out chest, bobbing his head, calling out loud. Their mating call sounds like “coooo-woo-woo-woooo” and is often mistaken for an owl. If the female is impressed by the male’s performance, she consents to a romantic grooming of each other’s feathers.
Once the two get together they form a strong pair bond that can last several breeding seasons. Like most birds, they prefer to nest in trees, but unlike most birds they are not averse to nesting on the ground should no suitable trees be available. Interestingly, both parents take part in the incubation process. These birds are dedicated to being parents and rarely leave the nests unprotected. If by any chance a predator discovers the nest, one parent will usually employ the quintessential decoy maneuver by pretending its wing is broken – fluttering around as if injured only to fly away when the predator approaches it.
Compared to other songbirds, their diet is a bit bland. European Turtle Doves are not huge fans of snails or insects instead preferring to munch on seeds such as canola, millet, safflower, and sunflower. They will even eat a bit of gravel or sand from time to time to help with digestion. Though they love to visit bird feeders, they are most often seen foraging for food on the ground. Whether it’s up on the feeder or down on the ground, they are always pleasant to watch.
Known for their gentle nature and lasting bonds, European Turtle Doves are the perfect symbol for all things Christmas. That’s why they are Cole’s Bird of the Month for December.