Turtle Dove – Day 4 of 30 Days [Biblically] Wild

Turtle Dove – תֹּר (tor); τρυγών (trugōn)

Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur) at Titchwell, RSPB – Image: Les Bunyan. https://www.lesbunyanphotography.co.uk/

The sound of the dove on a late summer’s afternoon, when velvet shadows begin to stretch over a freshly cut lawn, is one of those magical, lazy, sounds of summer. There is something special, something strangely soporific and hauntingly melancholic, about the dove’s call. As we shall see, it is something that also touched the heart and imagination of the ancient Hebrew writers of our biblical literature too.

The turtle dove, much smaller to our domestic doves (about the size of a blackbird), was once a very common summer visitor. However, unfortunately, they are now listed as being on the verge of extinction. The RSPB include it on their Red List for birds that are currently experiencing severe declines in local and global population.

A dove for the poor

The biblical texts distinguish between the turtle dove, תֹּר (tor) and the dove, יוֹנָה (yonah) – often translated as ‘pigeon’.  The turtle dove appears 14 times in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), mostly in connection with temple sacrifices. For those who were unable to afford the cost of sacrificing a lamb, a dispensation was sometimes made where the lamb could be substituted by two turtle doves (תֹּר – tor) or two (young?) doves (יוֹנָה – yonah) (e.g. in the case of a mother having given birth; Leviticus 12:8). Most English translations tend to prefer ‘pigeon’ to ‘dove’ in this context.

If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtle-doves or two pigeons…

Leviticus 12:8a (NRSV)

Interestingly, it is this option that Luke records the parents of Jesus taking when presenting an offering for Mary’s purification at the temple:

24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’

Luke 2:24 (NRSV)
Turtle dove in flight. Image: Graham Catley. Source: http://ww2.rspb.org.uk/our-work/rspb-news/news/384444-the-race-to-save-the-turtle-dove

The sound of summer

The turtle dove (תֹּר – tor) is distinguished from the dove (יוֹנָה – yonah) in the Hebrew texts because of its migratory nature.* Unlike the dove יוֹנָה (yonah), the turtle dove is not a resident to Israel but over winters in Africa returning to the land only in the warm summer months (see Tristram, 1867:12 and 213; Slifkin, 2009:249). Their annual migration is recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures and their ability to correctly know the times and seasons:

Even the stork in the heavens
knows its times;
and the turtle-dove, swallow, and crane[?]
observe the time of their coming;
but my people do not know
the ordinance of the Lord.  

Jeremiah 8:7 (NRSV)

This reference exemplifies the way the natural landscape suffuses the world of the ancients. The natural world functions as a palette and becomes even its vocabulary within which thought is expressed in voice and writing. As with my reflection at the beginning of this post, this association between the dove’s presence and call with the soft warm/hot weather of summer is lyrically captured in the Song of Songs:

11 for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
12 The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtle-dove
is heard in our land.

Song of Songs 2:11-12 (NRSV)

Incidentally, confusion with the bird’s onomatopoeic, name tur or turtur and its later English corruption to ‘turtle’ gave rise to the rather odd reading (to modern ears) of this verse in the King James Version:

The flowers appear on the earththe time of the singing of birds is comeand the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.

Song of Songs 2:12 (KJV) (emphasis added)

Tristram (1898) provides a rather lovely description of his encounters with the return of the turtle dove during his travels in the southern Levant:

Search the glades and valleys even by sultry Jordan, at the end of March, and not a Turtledove is to be seen. Return in the second week in April, and clouds of doves are feeding on the clovers of the plain. They stock every tree and thicket. At every step they flutter up from the herbage in front—they perch on every tree and bush—they overspread the whole face of the land. So universal, so simultaneous, so conspicuous their migration, that the prophet might well place the Turtledove at the head of those birds which ‘observe the time of their coming.’ While other songsters are heard chiefly in the morning, or only at intervals, the Turtle immediately on its arrival pours forth, from every garden, grove, and wooded hill, its melancholy yet soothing ditty, unceasingly from early dawn till sunset.

Tristram (1898:219)

‘Let me hear your voice’

It is therefore not surprising that the call of the dove is presented as the epitome of beauty. It may not have the melodic lyricism of the songbirds, but its melancholy quality appears to have been loved and appreciated by the biblical writers. In this way, a little later on in that same chapter (song), the lover speaks to his beloved saying:

14 O my dove [יוֹנָה – yonah], in the clefts of the rock,
in the covert of the cliff,
let me see your face,
let me hear your voice;

Song of Songs 2:14 (NRSV)
Niels Krabbe, XC58791. Accessible at http://www.xeno-canto.org/58791.

The very close connection between the bird and the sound it makes is illustrated by its Greek name τρυγών (trugōn), see Luke 2:24, which derives from the Greek for ‘to make a low murmuring sound, to coo’. In fact, both Hebrew and English names (tor, turtle) derive from its distinctive purring call: turr, turr. However, it would appear that the soft sound of the dove is not always perceived as a comforting delight. Isaiah refers to its more plaintive qualities:

14 Like a swallow or a crane[?] I clamour,
I moan like a dove [יוֹנָה – yonah].

Isaiah 38:14a (NRSV)

Tenderness and vulnerability

It was not just the beautifully haunting call of the turtle dove, but the bird itself appears to have evoked feelings of tenderness, and vulnerability. The writer of Psalm 74 pleads with his God:

19 Do not deliver the soul of your [turtle]dove [תֹּר – tor] to the wild animals;
do not forget the life of your poor for ever.

Psalm 74:19

The psalmist’s language is interesting. There is a clear aim to evoke feelings of compassion and affection through this image. As with the reference in Songs 2:14 (above), we see hints of an attitude to the turtle dove that is far more than utilitarian, but that it is also informed by some kind of emotional response to it.

Dove dung as food

Less savoury products from a dove have also had their uses. 2 Kings 6 describes the siege by 9th century BCE Aramaean king of Damascus, Ben-hadad and offers some sobering reading concerning the conditions experienced by those besieged:**

25As the siege continued, famine in Samaria became so great that a donkey’s head was sold for eighty shekels of silver, and one-fourth of a kab of dove’s dung [דִּבְיוֹנִים (dibyonim)] for five shekels of silver.

2 Kings 6:25 (NRSV)

Dove’s dung is also mentioned by Josephus in his account of the siege in Samaria at the time of King Joram.

 And the plenty of necessaries was brought so low with Joram, that from the extremity of want an ass’s head was sold in Samaria, for four score pieces of silver; and the Hebrews bought a sextary of doves dung, instead of salt, for five pieces of silver.

Josephus Antiquities 9.4.4

Others (see United Bible Societies, 1980:24) argue that דִּבְיוֹנִים  (dibyonim) could be a term used for very cheap or poor quality food, hence the Jerusalem Bible rendering it as “wild onions”. They also note that Linnaeus, drawing upon the Greek herbalist Dioscorides, suggests that it was a reference to the bulb of the Star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum) that was eaten.

Star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum) – could ‘dove’s dung’ be a reference to its bulb?

Tracking the turtle dove

Arriving in April/May and then migrating south in August and September, the best places for spotting the turtle dove tend to be in the southeast of the UK. You can find more information on the Turtle Dove Bird Facts page on the RSPB site.

Earlier this year, the RSPB released a fascinating video showing the flight of satellite-tagged turtle doves migrating from western Africa to Europe.

Sources: RSPB, ONCFS, Mapbox, moveVis.

If you want to help protect this beautiful bird, as well as get a lot more information on it, you might be also interested in the work of Operation Turtle Dove.

Take part in the Wildlife Trust’s ’30 Days Wild” challenge


*However, in their advice to translators, the UBS (1980) tends to conflate the two.

**For more information on Ben-hadad and the problems historical problems it poses see Nelson (2014:108-110)


Nelson, R.D. (2014) Historical Roots of the Old Testament (1200-63 BCE). Atlanta: SBL Press

Slifkin, N. (2009) Perek Shirah: Nature’s Song. 2nd edn. New York: Zoo Torah

Tristram, H.B. (1867) Natural History of the Bible: Being a review of the physical geography, geology, and meteorology of the holy land, with a description of every animal and plant mentioned in holy scriptureLondon: SPCK  

United Bible Societies (1980) Fauna and Flora of the Bible. Helps for Translators. 2nd edn. London: United Bible Societies.

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