The dove approached the bird feeder with hesitant dignity, gracing the common flock with its presence rather like Queen Victoria at a backyard barbecue. She—it was somehow impossible to think of the bird as anything other than female—was different from any of the other doves and pigeons that occasionally wander across the deck. This one was smaller and paler, so soft a gray as to be almost white, with one black stripe across the back of the neck.
We looked it up in The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, and there it was, number 350. Our guest looked just like the picture of the ringed turtle dove.
There was nothing in the least remarkable about this until we read the description on page 585. According to Audubon, the range of the ringed turtle dove is Los Angeles, California. To quote: "Escaped from captivity. Also established locally in southern Florida. . . . The small population in downtown Los Angeles has apparently not spread and is localized in a few parks and tree-lined streets."
Okay, then. Assuming our dainty visitor was indeed a ringed turtle dove—and no other picture in the bird book even came close to resembling it—how did it end up in western South Dakota?
True, we'd recently had a human houseguest from California who flew here in a manmade bird. The chances of a lone turtle dove stowing away in his luggage seemed remote, especially since he came from San Francisco. It's also possible the bird we saw was a local escapee, maybe one of a pair released at a wedding reception who had fled from its matrimonial obligations.
Or perhaps the truth is deeper and darker. What if there are tiny colonies of fugitive ringed turtle doves hidden all across the country? The one in Los Angeles could be the home base, showing to the public a peaceful community of harmless lovebirds, billing and cooing in the most innocent way. Behind the scenes, however, it could be the logistical center for a secret underground—er, aboveground movement of turtle doves with a goal of freeing all their relatives still held in captivity.
The one we saw could have been a scout, sent to search the middle of the country, checking every bird feeder, wedding venue, and party supplier to compile a list of captive turtle doves. Then, some dark night when we least expect it, the birds will launch Operation Winged Freedom, a massive aerial assault intended to release every enslaved lovebird.
The scout certainly wouldn't have found any captives here. We put out food so we can watch the birds, not capture them.
I just hope she doesn't know what happened to all her cousins that have disappeared in such numbers during dove season. If we're lucky, she'll never make the connection between us, my father, his shotgun, and all that dove-breast jerky that shows up at family reunions.