Missy Dunaway

Birds of Shakespeare: Turtle Dove (Streptopelia Turtur), 2022 (1/75)

Limited Edition Giclee Print

30 x 22 in

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Painting Key

Fauna: 3 Turtle doves, male and female

Flora: Common sunflower, alfalfa, mustard, fumitory, wheat, grass, barley

Objects: 2 Turtle dove eggs, 10 turtle dove feathers, 1 phoenix feather, the artist’s wedding bands

Plants mentioned by Shakespeare: Barley (Hordeum vulgare), fumitory (Fumaria officinalis), mustard (Sinapis alba), wheat (Triticum aestivum), grass (Brachypodium pinnatum)

Natural Science Guide 

Scientific name: Streptopelia turtur

Conservation status: Vulnerable[1] According to a 2016 report by Breeding Bird Survey, the turtle dove has declined in the United Kingdom by 93% since 1994 and by 78% in Europe since 1980. This decrease in population is credited to food scarcity and habitat destruction.

Distribution: The turtle dove is the only migratory dove in Europe that journeys to northern Africa for the winter. In the United Kingdom, turtle doves populate southern and eastern England and Wales.[2] Once widespread, the turtle dove is now a vulnerable species due to habitat destruction.

Habitat: Turtle doves inhabit woodland edges, fields with bushes, and hedges. They prefer open land rather than dense forests. Like all doves, it can drink saltwater as well as freshwater, and may be found on shorelines.[3]

Diet: Turtle doves feed on the seeds of wildflowers, including mustard, white goosefoot, fumitory, alfalfa, wheat, oilseed, rape, millet, and sunflower.

Predators: Predators include birds of prey, large mammals, and domesticated cats.

Breeding: Turtle doves form monogamous, lifelong partnerships.

Nest: The turtle dove quickly assembles a flimsy nest of pine needles, small twigs, and grass.[4] The nests often fall apart, allowing eggs to roll out and break. Turtle doves lay up to 6 broods per season to compensate for the loss.[5]

Eggs and clutch size: 6 broods of 1-2 glossy, white eggs.[6]

Literary Guide

Occurrences in text: 14 “turtle” and 19 “dove”

Plays: Coriolanus, Hamlet, 1 Henry VI, Henry VIII, Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Merry Wives of Windsor, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Rape of Lucrece, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest, Troilus and Cressida, The Winter’s Tale

Poems: The Passionate Pilgrim, The Phoenix and the Turtle, Sonnet 113, Venus and Adonis

Name as it appears in the text: “turtle-dove," "turtle," "dove"

Analysis:

The word "dove" may refer to rock, barbary, or turtle dove. Pigeons also belong to the Columbidae family, which further complicates the count. The now abundant collared dove was first recorded in the United Kingdom in 1955, and so it has been excluded from Shakespeare’s dovecote.[7] I have done my best to tally only explicit references to the colorful, pastel turtle dove.

The color of the dove is not always given, but narrative and context help decipher the species: the rock dove was a utilitarian bird, used as a carrier pigeon to deliver messages or as hunting bait, particularly in falconry.[8] The white barbary dove symbolizes peace and is sometimes exchanged between characters as an offer of treaty.[9] Any link made between love and doves counts towards the turtle dove.[10]

The turtle dove is a ubiquitous presence in romance, used so often that its contours have been smoothed over and its details generalized. Luckily, we can find the origins of the turtle dove’s folklore by looking at the bird’s natural behaviors. There is a direct correlation between folktales surrounding the turtle dove and its instincts. Even its name is an onomatopoeia for its call, a purring “turr-turr” sound.

The turtle dove is the only European dove that migrates to winter in northern Africa. It is one of the latest migrants to appear in Europe at the end of April, drawing our first symbolic tie to spring.[11] The turtle dove’s diet of wildflower seeds fortifies its connection to springtime.

Its favorite food is fumitory, an indicator for rich, cultivated lands.[12] If land were healthy and bountiful, it would likely be full of fumitory—and turtle doves. This may explain why the turtle dove represents the Greek goddess Demeter, who presided over grain and the earth's fertility. This connects the turtle dove with two Greek goddesses, as it also represented Aphrodite, and her Roman counterpart, Venus. Turtle doves guide Venus’ carriage to her home of Paphos, on the coast of Cyprus, in Shakespeare’s narrative poem, Venus and Adonis.[13]

 

Venus and Adonis, line 1189

 

Thus, weary of the world, away she hies,
And yokes her silver doves, by whose swift aid
Their mistress, mounted, through the empty skies
In her light chariot quickly is conveyed,
Holding their course to Paphos, where their queen
Means to immure herself, and not be seen.

Description: Venus’s mighty carriage is drawn by two dainty turtle doves, as illustrated in Amorum emblemata (1608) by Otto Van Veen.

Image: Veen, Otto Van. “Amorum emblemata, figuris æneis incisa studio Othonis VænI Batauo-Lugdunensis,” 1608.

Link: The Folger Shakespeare Library – LUNA Folger Digital Image Collection - Digital Image 063421

The turtle dove has divine associations in Christianity, as well. The Song of Solomon exhibits the bird’s link to spring:

 

Song of Solomon (King James Version, 2:12)

 

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;

 

The dove’s appearance in the Bible has infused its meaning with purity and truth. In biblical times, turtle doves were offered to women after childbirth to encourage fertility, and stalls outside of temples sold them to new mothers. Mary and Joseph sacrificed two turtle doves at the birth of Christ, creating an association between turtle doves and Christmas (i.e., “two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree”). It is a sin to eat doves in many Catholic countries, however, there are many references to eating doves in Shakespeare, which will be further explained in the Rock Dove profile. 

The folklore surrounding turtle doves takes a small jump from spring to love, a time attributed to birth and beginnings. The lifelong, monogamous bonds between turtle doves inspired myths about their faithfulness. Many bird species are monogamous creatures; it is my guess that the turtle dove’s docile nature and beautiful coloring made it the strongest candidate to represent courtly love. The turtle dove’s plumage has a color palette of sentimental florals like forget-me-not blue, delicate violet, and warm marigold.

Chaucer described "the wedded turtel with hir herte trew." Shakespeare carried this symbol for love and devotion into the seventeenth-century, using the bird as a synonym for lover. The titular birds of Shakespeare's obscure and magical poem, The Phoenix and the Turtle, embody ideal, chaste love. This bird-packed poem depicts a procession of feathered creatures attending the funeral of the phoenix and turtle dove, two lovers whose death also ends truth and beauty:

Whereupon it made this threne
To the Phoenix and the Dove,
Co-supremes and stars of love,
As chorus to their tragic scene:

 Beauty, truth, and rarity,
Grace in all simplicity,
Here enclos'd, in cinders lie.

Death is now the Phoenix' nest,
And the Turtle's loyal breast
To eternity doth rest,

Leaving no posterity:
’Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity.

Truth may seem but cannot be;
Beauty brag but 'tis not she;
Truth and beauty buried be.

In nature, the turtle dove appears to mourn the loss of its partner. Its North American cousin, the mourning dove, has even been observed returning to its partner’s death site to continue caring for the deceased mate.[14] This poignant behavior likely inspired a popular myth that a widowed turtle dove would refuse to drink from a pool of still water because its reflection would elicit memories of its late beloved. In the closing scene of The Winter’s Tale, the grief-stricken Paulina compares herself to a widowed turtle dove, as she is still mourning Antigonus, her late husband:

 

The Winter’s Tale, Act V, Scene III, Line 129 

 

Paulina: There's time enough for that;
Lest they desire upon this push to trouble
Your joys with like relation. Go together,
You precious winners all; your exultation
Partake to every one. I, an old turtle,
Will wing me to some wither'd bough and there
My mate, that's never to be found again,
Lament till I am lost. 

Description: This page from Minerua Britanna (1612) by Henry Peacham depicts the widowed turtle dove, who “solitarie by herselfe remains, recording in most dolefull wife her woe, letting the pleasures, of the season goe.”

Image: Peacham, Henry. “Minerua Britanna or A garden of heroical deuises, furnished, and adorned with emblemes and impresa's of sundry natures, newly devised, moralized, and published, by Henry Peacham, Mr. of Artes,” 1612.

Link: The Folger Shakespeare Library – LUNA Folger Digital Image Collection - Digital Image 066961

The turtle dove’s romantic behaviors make it an obvious symbol to be cast in Shakespeare’s romances and tragedies, emphasizing the weight of devotion between star-crossed couples, such as Troilus and Cressida. However, it also appears in the comedies. The earnest love between two turtle doves underscores the questionable ties between less admirable couples. Mistress Page of The Merry Wives of Windsor jested that it would be easier to find "twenty lascivious turtles ere one chaste man."

Whether the turtle dove is fluttering past us in a pastoral setting, nuzzling its mate in a romance, or acting as a foil to a loutish lover in a comedy, this delicate dove is a landmark in Shakespeare’s imagined world.

Thank you to Paul Richard Tomlinson for providing the reference photo for this illustration!

Endnotes

[1] BirdLife International. 2019. Streptopelia turturThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2019: e.T22690419A154373407. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2019-3.RLTS.T22690419A154373407.en. Accessed December 15 2021.

 

[2] Svensson, L., Princeton Field Guides: Birds of Europe, 2nd ed., (London: HarperCollins Ltd, 1990), 218.

 

[3] Coward, T.A., Birds of the British Isles and Their Eggs. 2nd ed. (London: Frederick Warne & Co Ltd, 1975), 207.

 

[4] Coward, T.A., Birds of the British Isles and Their Eggs. 2nd ed. (London: Frederick Warne & Co Ltd, 1975), 207.

 

[5] Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996), 293. 

 

[6] Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996), 293. 

 

[7] Greenoak, F., All The Birds of the Air, 2nd ed, (Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1981), 163.

 

[8] Harting, J., The Birds of Shakespeare, (London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871), 55.

 

[9] Harting, J., The Birds of Shakespeare, (London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871), 191.

 

[10] Harting, J., The Birds of Shakespeare, (London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871), 191.

 

[11] Svensson, L., Princeton Field Guides: Birds of Europe, 2nd ed., (London: HarperCollins Ltd, 1990), 218.

 

[12] Greenoak, F., All The Birds of the Air, 2nd ed, (Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1981), 163.

 

[13] Shakespeare, William. "Venus and Adonis." The Norton Anthology. 2nd ed. Eds. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katherine Eisaman Maus. New York: W.W Norton, 2008. 662. Print.

 

[14] Kocher, Jennifer. “Image of Dove Appearing to Grieve Over Death of Mate in Wyoming Goes Viral.” Cowboy State Daily, June 8, 2021. Accessed March 29, 2022.