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Shakespeare & Beyond

Birds of Shakespeare: The turtle dove

With the turtle dove, we continue following artist Missy Dunaway on a bird-watching expedition through Shakespeare’s works. Supported by a 2021 Folger artist-in-residence fellowship, her growing collection of paintings aims to catalog every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays and poems—at least 65 species. Read more on the Collation blog about Dunaway’s approach and research using the Folger collection. To find natural science facts about each species as well as paintings of more birds in the series, visit her website

A turtle dove in flight with two other turtle doves sitting below on a branch
Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur) by Missy Dunaway, 30x22 inches, acrylic ink on paper

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)

For Valentine’s Day, we meet none other than the turtle dove, Shakespeare’s representative of romantic love. 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, so it has been excluded from Shakespeare’s dovecote.[i] 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.[ii] The white barbary dove symbolizes peace and is sometimes exchanged between characters as an offer of treaty.[iii] Any link made between love and doves counts towards the turtle dove.[iv]

The turtle dove is ubiquitous 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 its 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.[v] The turtle dove’s diet of wildflower seeds fortifies its connection to springtime.

Its favorite food is fumitory, an indicator for rich, cultivated lands.[vi] If the 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.

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.

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

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 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 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.

The Phoenix and Turtle (Line 53)

Beauty, truth, and rarity,
Grace in all simplicity,
Here enclosed, 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.[vii] 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 5, Scene 3, Line 165)

PAULINA: You precious winners all. Your exultation
Partake to everyone. I, an old turtle,
Will wing me to some withered bough and there
My mate, that’s never to be found again,
Lament till I am lost.

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.” Folger Shakespeare Library

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 comedies. The sincere 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[vii] 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.