Turtle Doves are a wild breed of European doves, similar to North American Mourning Doves. They would have been common in England and France during the spring, summer and fall in the 18th century when this carol was published. It is a migratory species that winters in southern Africa.
Doves have symbolized peace and love for centuries. To the ancient Greeks, Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was associated with doves and was sometimes depicted in a chariot drawn by doves. A dove brought Noah the olive branch, symbol of the renewal of life. The dove descended on Christ at his baptism, symbolizing the Holy Spirit.
Many fanciers keep domestic pigeons and doves. The terms ‘pigeon’ and ‘dove’ are often used interchangeably. Both pigeons and doves are in the same scientific family, but there are hundreds of species. Divisions are not clearly delineated, but generally pigeons are larger than doves
They are small enough that they can be kept as cage birds, although most keepers allow them some liberty. Trap and bob entries allow pigeons to enter, but not leave again.
Pigeons and doves are classified as either seed-eating or fruit-eating. Turtle doves are seed eaters. Most birds kept domestically are seed-eating, but fruit-eating birds can also be kept successfully.
This photo of a turtle dove appeared on the web site of the Times of Malta, http://www.timesofmalta.com/, in April 2008. At that time, a reader was complaining about a plague of turtle doves damaging crops and advocating allowing hunters to shoot them. The relationship between humans and wildlife is subject to friction, generally resolved on the side of the humans.