Tag Archives: Key West chickens

Key West pigeon quest

Why did the rooster cross the … poem?

I went for a long walk in downtown Key West on Wednesday, September 14 – wearing flip flops because I had gotten my sneakers wet in a mangrove swamp that morning.

My first stop was the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory, where colorful and exotic birds and butterflies are so easy to see and photograph that they are pretty much served up to you on a silver platter.

But I had set myself the goal of finding and photographing a particular bird native to the Caribbean and southern tip of Florida, the White-crowned Pigeon.

I practiced taking pictures of Key West’s gypsy chickens. They are all over the place. This one was nipping tiny flowers from weeds.

The story behind the Key West chickens? Read it HERE

There have always been chickens in Key West.

When people stopped the laborious process of turning live chickens into Sunday dinner many decades ago, some backyard chickens gained their freedom. Other roosters were released when cock-fighting became illegal.

Cock of the walk.

Roaming chickens remind me of islands I’ve visited in the Caribbean. When you are in this southernmost U.S. city, you are just 75 miles north of the official latitudinal start of the Tropics.

I did finally see the Caribbean bird I was looking for.

Quick, there it is! Out of focus, bummer.

The debonair White-crowned Pigeon is a large, slate-gray pigeon with a neat white cap and striking white eyes. Widespread around the Caribbean, it crosses into southernmost Florida, where it feeds on fruit in trees near the coast and on islands, including the Keys. White-crowned Pigeons make long-distance morning and evening flights high over open water between islands, as they commute from mangrove forests to areas with fruiting fig and other tropical fruit trees.

See its white “crown” or cap?

I had seen a WCP fly over when I was on Long Key the day before and decided to try to get a photo of one when I realized it would be a new bird for the bird blog. I remembered having seen one before, but where?

I rummaged around in several places I keep old words and pictures and got it. In March of 2014 my husband and I rented a one-bedroom villa in Caye Caulker, an island in the Caribbean off the coast of Belize. We lived in New Hampshire then.

This is from a review I posted on Tripadvisor

(March 2014) The upper deck of Villa Gemma puts you at eye level with tropical birds. You are drinking Travellers Classic Gold Rum with papaya, pineapple juice and coconut water, purchased at a sandy-floored grocery store in town after a morning swim at The Cut at the northern end of the island and transported in a bike basket over potholed dirt roads back to the hardwood kitchen countertop and perfect-sized fridge.

That upper deck is shady in the afternoon and faces east to the ocean and its trade winds, beyond the trees, a few streets away. You can hear the single-engine arrival of a Tropic Air Cessna Caravan at the small airport just to the south. Children in uniforms are biking past, returning to school after a long lunch at home. You have eaten an omelet with fresh eggs, black beans and rice for lunch. Plus a dash of homemade hot sauce purchased on Day One at that little restaurant next to the beachfront cemetery.

“I’m in a hammock, drinking rum, listening to the call of doves, and not shoveling snow.” This is one of the small perfect moments you are here for.

I started blogging birds in May 2015, so the White-crowned Pigeon never got “counted.” But finally in September of 2022…

I swear it is a White-crowned Pigeon.

Clearly I need a second-floor porch and hammock to really get a good look at this bird. Just add a rum drink to complete the ideal Amy-birding scenario?

I celebrated bagging my pigeon with a visit to the tasting room at the rum distillery named for Ernest Hemingway’s fishing boat Pilar: Papa’s Pilar Rum. I tasted three kinds of rum then had a daiquiri.

I bought a bottle of the blonde rum to mix (Category 1) Hurricanes for our signature book club drink in October, since we are reading Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad that Crossed an Ocean.

After drinking with Ernest I walked over to a wonderful small museum, the Audubon House.

The house was built in the 1840’s by a wealthy Key West family and was later restored and furnished according to the era. It also contains original Audubon prints on display and for sale.

White-crowned Pigeons!

John James Audubon wrote about them

They are at all times extremely shy and wary, more so in fact than any species with which I am acquainted. The sight of a man is to them insupportable, perhaps on account of the continued war waged against them, their flesh being juicy, well flavoured, and generally tender, even in old birds. Never could I get near one of them so long as it observed me. Indeed, the moment they perceive a man, off they go, starting swiftly with a few smart raps of the wings, and realighting in a close covert for awhile, or frequently flying to another key, from which they are sure to return to that left by them, should you pursue them. It is thus a most toilsome task to procure specimens of these birds.

The dining room, where many types of birds were consumed, in many ways. Out back in the garden is a cook house with information on how food was prepared back then.

Portrait of John James Audubon next to the parlor.

With no other prospects, Audubon set off on his epic quest to depict America’s avifauna, with nothing but his gun, artist’s materials, and a young assistant. Floating down the Mississippi, he lived a rugged hand-to-mouth existence in the South while Lucy earned money as a tutor to wealthy plantation families. In 1826 he sailed with his partly finished collection to England and began to attain his fame as an artist. His life-size, highly dramatic bird portraits, along with his embellished descriptions of wilderness life, hit just the right note at the height of the Continent’s Romantic era. 

The dressing room.

The White-headed Pigeon exhibits little of the pomposity of the common domestic species, in its amorous moments. The male, however, struts before the female with elegance, and the tones of his voice are quite sufficient to persuade her of the sincerity of his attachment. During calm and clear mornings, when nature appears in all her purity and brightness, the cooing of this Pigeon may be heard at a considerable distance, mingling in full concord with the softer tones of the Zenaida Dove. The bird standing almost erect, full-plumed, and proud of his beauty, emits at first a loud croohoo, as a prelude, and then proceeds to repeat his coo-coo-coo. These sounds are continued during the period of incubation, and are at all times welcome to the ear of the visiter of these remarkable islands. – John James Audubon

On the way back to my car, I was still looking up at roofs for pigeons and I stumbled and stubbed my bare toe on a curb, punctured the flesh near the nail, and started bleeding profusely into my flip flop and all over. Slippery! Disgusting! Impossible to walk. And it had started to rain.

I was saved by a nice man who had been sitting on the front porch of his liquor store, watching the passersby. He stepped inside to grab me some paper towels and bandaids. “Blew out my flip flop, stepped on a pop top…” he sang a few lines of Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville” to me. “Bet you don’t know that one.” I laughed and said, “Oh yes, I do know that one.”

Lesson learned. Combining rum with bird-watching is most safely done in a hammock.