Tomorrow is Valentine's Day! The turtle dove (Streptopelia turtur) is an ancient symbol of love, devotion, and affection in many cultures. The bird makes a distinctive cooing sound and is known to be true to its mate. Medieval readers of the Physiologus knew of the bird's fidelity: upon the death of a mate, the surviving dove "longs for and awaits her lost one at every moment and endures thus in remembrance and longing for him until death." This faithfulness is echoed in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale: "So turtles pair, that never mean to part." The lovey-dovey aspect even turns up on a decorative 17th-century English thimble, on which is engraved the phrase "be true in love as a turtle dove." Isn't that romantic!

Unsurprisingly, turtle doves find their way into music throughout the ages. The carol "Twelve Days of Christmas" famously includes "two turtle doves" in its list. In RISM, the bird's gentle purr is brought out in a rondo by James Hook and the anonymous song "Cooing of the turtle dove." Ludwig van Beethoven, if you can read his handwriting in this autograph manuscript, begins "Die laute Klage" with the words, "Turteltaube, du klagest so laut." The longing felt by the lonely dove comes out in the sacred oratorio "Die betrübte und nach ihrem Geliebten seufzende Turteltaube," which also makes the religious symbolism of the dove clear. The French tourterelle is a bird of devotion in Orlando di Lasso's "Comme la tourterelle languit jusqu'a la mort" and the anonymous "Comme la tourterelle fidèle à son amour."

The turtle dove is the Bird of the Year for 2020 here in Germany, chosen by the Naturschutzbund Deutschland. Unfortunately, sightings of the bird in Europe are not as common today as they were for our poets of the past, due to habitat loss and illegal hunting. Awareness is needed of the threatened conservation status for this gentle symbol of love.

Images: Page from Sebastian Knüpfer, "Die Turteltaube lässet sich hören" (manuscript, ca. 1683). Dresden, Sächsische Landesbibliothek - Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek (SLUB) (D-Dl) Mus.1825-E-518. RISM ID no. 211004692. Available online.

Photograph of a turtle dove by Revital Salomon (Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0).



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