The Bible makes numerous references to the turtle dove. Harbinger of tranquility and worthy of being offered on the altar in Jerusalem, the deep symbolism of the dove is unavoidable. There are a few dove breeders in the United States, and as fanciers of these birds they inquired as to the kosher status of the turtle dove. It is doubtful that these people had any intention of consuming the turtle dove, but rather they wanted to learn all they could about the breed they were raising. Perhaps it was hoped that if proven kosher a new marketing venue would open. After all, how many people have pets that could be offered as a sacrifice in the Temple? It should be noted that the Orthodox Union only certifies food. While it is possible for the Orthodox Union to verify the kosher status of a species, it is impossible to certify a live bird; the living bird is not food; it is not in its present form fit for human consumption; and thus cannot be considered kosher.
Before going any further, it is important to explain the origin of the name turtle dove. The dove is not at all associated with a turtle, but rather a slurring of the Latin which is based on the Hebrew. In biblical Hebrew the dove is the tor. In deference to the Hebraic origins, the Latin name was turtur, the biblical Hebrew word, tor, twice. When transliterated to English, the word turtur became the garbled turtle dove. Scientifically, the turtur genus is rather limited, comprising only a few species. In contrast, in the biblical tradition the number of species which are considered to be a species of turtle dove is far greater than the number of species scientifically classified as the turtur genus.
The Talmudic tradition (Tractate Chulin) is that there are a number of species of turtle doves. In the United States, a few varieties of doves are offered for sale and so I began my research at the pet store. I live adjacent to the first Petland Discount store. This store is always staffed by the most knowledgeable and dedicated salespeople as the CEO of the company is said to frequent the store if for nothing more than the memories of when this was his only location.
The salespeople showed me that there were two kinds
of turtle doves for sale. One was the ring neck dove. The ring neck doves, which are common in pet stores, are not scientifically considered to be a turtur specie. However, the biblical tradition does classify the ring neck dove as a turtle dove. The back of the ring neck dove has a black ring of feathers, bordered on both sides by white rings of feathers. It is from this anatomical feature that the bird was named the ring neck dove. For two millennia it has been described and documented in the rabbinic literature, often described as wearing a prayer shawl.
To be sure the scientifically classified turtur are also considered to be turtle doves, but it is the ring neck that is the best documented. Cost was also a factor; the ring neck doves cost approximately a fifth of what the least expensive members of the turtur genus would cost. Finally, it was the goal to breed these birds. The ring neck are much more habituated to people and thus much more likely to breed in captivity. (While ring neck doves sell for between ten and thirty dollars the exotic doves start at one hundred dollars, for the more common varieties [palm doves and ground doves]. There are some exotic doves and pigeons, such as the Queen Victoria Crowned pigeon, which can cost thousands of dollars.)
Sold beside the ring neck dove, described above, was a white dove. The white dove was the same size as the ring neck dove, although it was ten dollars more expensive. I could see that the feathers of the white dove were anatomically identical to the feathers of the ring neck dove, although the feathers of the white dove were all white. There was no black line to be found anywhere on the neck. I thought I could identify some feathers on the back of the neck resembling a prayer shawl, although this prayer shawl was totally white. The problem is that these visual tests would be insufficient for the determination of the kosher status of the white dove.
Clearly, I would need to prove that these two species were one and the same. I contacted a number of dove breeders, and they all assured me that the white dove was just a strain of the ring neck dove. I found this corroborated in the scientific literature. However, since the ring neck dove and the white dove were often sold together, and that many people housed them together and considered them the same species, I had to verify their status. To discuss the ring neck without mention of the white dove would have been a glaring omission.
Not far from my home is the Biblical Ornithological Society, an institution dedicated to breeding rare and endangered biblical birds. As a board member of the Society, I was graciously granted an aviary to conduct some basic experiments. I took seven doves and introduced them into the aviary. There were six white doves, some were male and some were female, and there was one male ring necked dove.
Seeing all was in order, I started to exit the aviary when I realized that the ring neck dove and the white doves were mating. A few days later the white female produced eggs and out hatched two ring neck doves. Unfortunately, of all the nesting boxes set up, this was the best. All the other females started laying eggs in the nest and the babies were soon crushed. I then had to make a half dozen identical nest boxes and everyone was nesting happily. Sure enough the white doves produced a clutch, two babies, one was a ring neck and one was a white dove.
With the help of Rafi, a volunteer at the Biblical Ornithological Society, I carefully monitored the babies. They grew fast and beautifully until finally I had two full grown birds, one a white and the other a ring neck dove. Most importantly, the ring neck dove was identical to its father. There was no hybrid vigor, or any other indication of speciation. Rather it seems that the white doves are a color strain, presumably recessive, of the ring neck dove. As such, it can be confidently concluded that the ring neck dove and the white dove are strains of the same species. Both are species of the kosher turtle dove.
As of press time, the turtle doves are nesting again. They have fully acclimated to the aviary. If you attempt to exit the aviary without dropping a few sun flowers for them to enjoy, you can be sure that they will follow you right out of the aviary, staying close until your mistake is rectified.