If there is an iconic bird for the Florida Keys, the Key West quail-dove is it. The bird was named, and painted, by John James Audubon during his 1832 visit to the island chain.
"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," Audubon wrote in his journal.
Audubon admired the bird's beauty, but locals found them "excellent eating," they told the naturalist. By the middle of the 19th Century, the bird was no longer breeding in the Keys and only occasional wanderers from the Caribbean and Bahamas are seen on the islands. These days it's a "rare and sporadic straggler," according to Rafael Galvez, who runs the Florida Keys Hawkwatch. The last sighting in South Florida was in 2002.
When one does show up it's a big deal -- and it was an even bigger deal recently when one appeared at Long Key State Park, just in time for the Florida Keys Birding and Wildlife Festival. Birders arrived from all over just to see the quail-dove.
"It's definitely an evocative sort of bird," Galvez said. He and his team count migrating birds from Curry Hammock State Park in the Middle Keys all autumn, so there are more sharp-eyed birders than usual in the area.
"It kind of brings back this element of times of old when we still had hammocks and the Keys were wild," he said.
Today's birders include listers, who want to add a rare bird to the list of birds they've seen, but also those who -- like Audubon -- appreciate its beauty and its history, even if it no longer regularly visits its namesake area.
"It should probably be called something like the violet green quail-dove," said Galvez, who is also a painter of birds, "but I don’t think they’re going to change the name."
To keep track of bird sightings in South Florida, the best resource is the Tropical Audubon Society's Bird Board.
Audubon was so struck by the bird's beauty that, among pigeons, he called it "the most beautiful yet found in the United States." From his journal:
"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 Pharoahs, than I did in trying to preserve from injury this most beautiful of the woodland cooers!