A sunny day in late April, more than 20 years ago, I was scanning the playing field by my west London patch when I noticed a smaller bird among the pigeon flock. A quick look revealed a tortoiseshell wing-pattern, black neck streaks and a pale grey head: a turtle dove.
I was pleased but, at the height of spring migration, hardly surprised. Yet in two decades since, I have never seen a turtle dove on my local patch again, in London or Somerset. Indeed, I have hardly seen one at all.
The turtle dove is named not because of that distinctive wing pattern, but from its unique sound: the word is a corruption of the male’s soft “tur-tur-tur” call. Once, this was the classic sound of the English summer, redolent of warm, sunny days and blossom-filled hedgerows.
But no longer. The turtle dove is now on the edge of extinction in Britain: a casualty of a broken system of industrial farming which no longer produces the weed seeds on which it feeds. The birds are also shot as they cross the Mediterranean on their journey to Africa.
Soon, the turtle dove may only survive in the famous Christmas carol, a poor shadow of its former self, along with another declining farmland bird, the partridge in a pear tree.
Stephen Moss’s latest book, The Twelve Birds of Christmas, is out now (Square Peg, £12.99) Buy through Guardian Bookshop for £11.43