The Key West Pigeon, or Dove

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Birds of America

By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.


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[Key West Quail-Dove.]

[Geotrygon chrysia.]


It was at Key West that I first saw this beautiful Pigeon. The Marion was brought to anchor close to, and nearly opposite, the little town of the same name, some time after the setting of the sun. The few flickering lights I saw nearly fixed the size of the place in my imagination. In a trice, the kind captain and I were seated in his gig, and I felt the onward movement of the light bark as if actually on wing, so well timed was the pulling of the brave tars who were taking us to the shore. In this place I formed acquaintance with Major GLASSEL Of the United States Artillery, and his family, of Dr. BENJAMIN STROBEL, and several other persons, to whom I must ever feel grateful for the kind attention which they paid to me and my assistants, as well as for the alacrity with which they aided me in procuring rare specimens not only of birds, but also of shells and plants, most of which were unknown to me. Indeed--I cannot too often repeat it--the facilities afforded me by our Government, during my latter journeys and voyages, have been so grateful to my feelings, that I have frequently thought that circumstance alone quite sufficient to induce even a less ardent lover of nature to exert himself to the utmost in repaying the favour.

Major GLASSEL sent one of his serjeants with me to search the whole island, with which he was perfectly acquainted. The name of this soldier was SYKES, and his life, like mine, had been a chequered one; for there are few pleasures unaccompanied with pains, real or imaginary, and the worthy serjeant had had his share of both. I soon discovered that he was a perfect woodsman, for although we traversed the densest thickets, in close and gloomy weather, he conducted me quite across the island, in as masterly a manner as ever did an Indian on a like occasion.--But perhaps, kind reader, a copy of my journal for that day, may afford you a clearer idea of our search for rare birds, than any other means that I could devise. Before I proceed, however, allow me to state, that, while at Charleston, in South Carolina, I saw at my friend BACHMAN'S house the head of a Pigeon which Dr. STROBEL had sent from Key West, and which I perceived did not belong to the Zenaida Dove. Serjeant SYKES had seen the Pigeon, and acquainted as he was with the birds of the country, he gave some hope that we might procure a few of them that very day;--and now, for my Journal.

"May 6, 1832.--When I reached the garrison, I found the sergeant waiting for me. I gave him some small shot, and we set off, not in full run, nor even at a dog-trot, but with the slowness and carefulness usually employed by a lynx or a cougar when searching for prey. We soon reached the thickets, and found it necessary to move in truth very slowly, one foot warily advanced before the other, one hand engaged in opening a passage, and presently after occupied in securing the cap on the head, in smashing some dozens of hungry musquitoes, or in drawing the sharp thorn of a cactus from a leg or foot, in securing our gun-locks, or in assisting ourselves to rise after a fall. But we pushed on, squeezed ourselves between the stubborn branches, and forced our way as well as we could, my guide of course having the lead. Suddenly I saw him stoop, and observing the motion of his hand, immediately followed his example. Reduced by his position to one half of his natural height, he moved more briskly, inclined to the right, then to the left, then pushed forward, and raising his piece as he stopped, immediately fired. "I have it," cried he. "What?" cried I. "The pigeon"--and he disappeared. The heat was excessive, and the brushwood here was so thick and tangled, that had not Mr. SYKES been a United States soldier, I should have looked upon him as bent on retaliating on behalf of "the eccentric naturalist;" for, although not more than ten paces distant from me, not a glimpse of him could I obtain. After crawling to the spot I found him smoothing the feathers of a Pigeon which I had never seen, nay the most beautiful yet found in the United States. How I gazed on its resplendent plumage!--how I marked the expression of its rich-coloured, large and timid eye, as the poor creature was gasping its last breath!--Ah, how I looked on this lovely bird! I handled it, turned it, examined its feathers and form, its bill, its legs and claws, weighed it by estimate, and after a while formed a winding sheet for it of a piece of paper. Did ever an Egyptian pharmacopolist employ more care in embalming the most illustrious of the Pharaohs, than I did in trying to preserve from injury this most beautiful of the woodland cooers!

I never felt, nor did my companion, that our faces and hands were covered with musquitoes; and although the perspiration made my eyes smart, I was as much delighted as ever I had been on such an occasion. We travelled onward, much in the same manner, until we reached the opposite end of the island; but not another bird did we meet this day.

As we sat near the shore gazing on the curious light pea-green colour of the sea, I unfolded my prize, and as I now more quietly observed the brilliant changing metallic hues of its plumage, I could not refrain from exclaiming--"But who will draw it?" for the obvious difficulties of copying nature struck me as powerfully as they ever had done, and brought to my memory the following passage:--"La nature se joue du pinceau des hommes;--lorsqu' on croit qu'il a atteint sa plus grande beaute, elle sourit et s'embellit encore!"

We returned along the shore of this curious island to the garrison, after which Major GLASSEL's barge conveyed me on board of the Marion. I have taken upon myself to name this species the Key West Pigeon, and offer it as a tribute to the generous inhabitants of that island, who favoured me with their friendship.

The flight of this bird is low, swift, and protracted. I saw several afterwards when they were crossing from Cuba to Key West, the only place in which I found them. It flies in loose flocks of from five or six to a dozen, with flappings having an interval apparently of six feet, so very low over the sea, that one might imagine it on the eve of falling into the water every moment. It is fond of going out from the thickets early in the morning, for the purpose of cleansing itself in the shelly sand that surrounds the island; but the instant it perceives dancer it flies off to the woods, throws itself into the thickest part of them, alights on the ground, and runs off with rapidity until it thinks itself secure. The jetting motions of its tail are much like those of the Carolina Dove, and it moves its neck to and fro, forward and backward, as Pigeons are wont to do.

The cooing of this species is not so soft or prolonged as that of the Common Dove, or of the Zenaida Dove, and yet not so emphatical as that of any true Pigeon with which I am acquainted. It may be imitated by pronouncing the following syllables:--Whoe-whoe-oh-oh-oh. When suddenly approached by man, it emits a guttural gasping-like sound, somewhat in the manner of the Common Tame Pigeon on such an occasion. They alight on the lower branches of shrubby trees, and delight in the neighbourbood of shady ponds, but always inhabit, by preference, the darkest solitudes.

The nest of the Key West Pigeon is formed of light dry twigs, and much resembles in shape that of the Carolina Dove. Sometimes you find it situated on the ground, when less preparation is used. Some nests are placed on the large branches of trees quite low, while others are fixed on slender twigs. On the 20th May, one of these nests was found containing two pure white eggs, about the size of those of the White-headed Pigeon, nearly round, and so transparent that I could see the yolk by holding them to the light. How long incubation continues, or if they raise more than one brood in a season, I am unable to say.

Towards the middle of July they become sufficiently abundant at Key West to enable sportsmen to shoot as many as a score in a day; for, as soon as the young are able to follow their parents, they frequently resort to the roads to dust themselves, and are then easily approached. Dr. STROBEL told me he had procured more than a dozen of these birds in the course of a morning, and assured me that they were excellent eating.

Their food consists of berries and seeds of different plants, and when the sea-grape is ripe, they feed greedily upon it. They all depart for Cuba, or the other West India Islands, about the middle of October.

Until my arrival at Key West, this species was supposed to be the Zenaida Dove. The young, when fully feathered, are of a dark-grey colour above, lighter below, the bill and legs of a deep leaden hue. I am inclined to believe that they attain their full beauty of plumage the following spring.

So much are these birds confined to the interior of the undergrowth, that their loves are entirely prosecuted there; nor do they on such occasions elevate themselves in the air, as is the manner of the Carolina Dove.

COLUMBA MONTANA, Linn. Syst. Nat., vol. i. p. 281.

KEY WEST PIGEON, Columba montana, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. ii. p. 382.

Male, 11 3/4, 17 1/2.

Key West only during summer. Not rare.

Adult Male.

Bill straight, of ordinary length, rather slender, broader than deep at the base, compressed toward the end; upper mandible with a tumid fleshy covering at the base, a convex declinate obtuse tip, and a slight sinus in the sharp margins; lower mandible with the angle near the extremity, which is compressed and rounded. Nostrils medial, oblique, linear. Head small and compressed, the general form rather robust. Legs short, and of moderate strength; tarsus covered anteriorly with broad scutella, rounded behind; toes scutellate, free, margined; claws rather small, arched, compressed, marginate, obtuse.

Plumage compact on the back, elsewhere blended with strong but disunited barbs. Wings of ordinary length; second quill longest, first intermediate between the fourth and fifth. First four primaries more or less cut out on the outer web, towards the end. Tail much rounded, of twelve broad rounded feathers.

Bill horn-colour at the end, the fleshy parts at the base bright carmine. Iris and margins of the eye-lids carmine. Feet flesh-coloured, the scutella of the tarsus and toes carmine. Forehead and a band running behind the eye light reddish-brown; upper part of the head shining with purplish-brown and light green reflections, as is the back of the neck. The general colour of the upper parts is brownish-red, the wing-coverts and margins of the quills and tail shaded with green, the fore part of the back splendent with purple reflections. There is a broad white band from the lower mandible beneath the eye, and the throat is of the same colour; under the subocular white band is another of the same colour as the forehead. The fore-neck and breast are of a rich but delicate pale purple, which fades into cream-colour behind. Under surface of the wings and tail of the same colour as the upper, but fainter.

Length 11 3/4 inches, extent of wings 17 1/2; bill along the back 10/12, along the edge 1 inch; tarsus 1 2/12, middle-toe 4/12; weight 6 ounces.

Adult Female.

The female resembles the male, the tints being merely fainter, and the gloss of the neck and back less splendent.

The plants represented in this plate grew on Key West, in sheltered situations. That with purple flowers is a convolvulus, the other an ipomaea. The blossoms are partially closed at night, and although ornamental, are destitute of odour.

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