From the Pastors Desk

IMG_256THE Holy Spirit descended like a dove on Christ at his baptism, and it was a dove that brought to Noah the good news that the flood had receded. Members of the pigeon family have long been associated with hope and spiritual renewal in the Christian tradition.

But the same family of birds also gave us the dodo and the passenger pigeon, two familiar symbols of extinction. A startling statistic is that it took until 1850 for the global human population to catch up with the population of the passenger pigeon, and barely 60 more for the latter to be wiped out altogether.

Another of “God’s feathered people”, the turtle dove (Streptopelia turtur), the lover’s gift on the second day of Christmas, has long been a poetic symbol of spring and love, as in the Song of Solomon:

The flowers appear on the earth; The time of singing has come, and the turtle dove is heard in our land.

The turtle dove is so named because of its purring song, which people have long perceived as both mournful and consoling. Now it, too, is in danger. About 250,000 visited Britain in the spring of 1966, but, today, barely 5000 make it to these shores each year, and the fall in numbers has sharpened in the past five years. It is a history that tells us something about our relationship with God’s creation and the mysteries contained therein.

The study of breeding behaviour has revealed one of the key factors in its decline. In the 1960s, each pair of birds was able to rear two or three broods a year. Now most pairs can barely manage one, and clutch sizes are falling, too. Although thousands of turtle doves are shot by hunters as they pass over the Continent, there is no doubt that this lack of chicks has a more significant impact on numbers. A fundamental reason for this, as is the case for most of the declining bird species, is that there is not enough food, or only the wrong kind of food. There is evidence that hard grain seriously damages the bird’s throat, in contrast to the once-common agrarian flowers of the field, such as fumitory, clover, and vetches.

Glimmers of hope can be found in rewilding, a process described by the author and conservationist Isabella Tree in her book Wilding: The return of nature to a British farm (Picador, 2018). The wilding project at Knepp, in Sussex, suggests that a more varied, untidy habitat can created a safe environment and bring back the native plants which turtle doves need to prosper. The turtle dove is a reminder that, in this season, we celebrate God’s outpouring of love for all of creation, in all its fragility.