There is a palpable demand in my Las Vegas backyard. A flock of doves, vigilant, awaits fresh seed in the feeder. Perched in the hundred-year-old olive tree, they look like creamy puffballs, an occasional beak preening a wing feather or rubbing a cushiony breast. Nine today. I count them from the kitchen window. Each bird anticipates the door opening onto the patio, the seeds spilling into the receptacle—a lyrical sound, almost like falling water.
Las Vegas has seven species of dove, including the Mourning Doves roosting in the tree outside my window. In fact, the city claims over 200 varieties of birds, not counting the busy flyover lanes above Highway 15. My Mourning Doves are trim and handsome, with a jot of black eyeliner beneath their eyes, their plumage as soft as a cloud might feel if you could gather those billowing wisps in the sky and hold them in your hands.
The birds are as observant of me as I am of them. Mourning Doves have dark and shiny eyes that look almost like swatches of undeveloped film. The eye is ringed in light blue, so that the pupils grow even sharper through contrast, to the point that they dominate the dove’s entire appearance. Other birds might flaunt the pattern of stripes on their wings or the glistening irridescence of the tail. Not the Mourning Dove. Creature intelligence emanates from those eyes.
The doves watch me as I bustle about the house—from the higher branches, they can see into the office; the lower branches, the kitchen. When I am close to the window, they cock their heads, observe my movements. Their constant, companionable gaze is one of the reasons why doves have been kept as pets throughout the centuries, and were favorites of Matisse and Picasso. A gentle curiosity seems to radiate from their eyes as they observe me pruning the potted plants in the back yard. The cherry trees, seemingly overnight, have burst into bloom.
Recently, as I was filling the teakettle at the sink, I realized there was a Mourning Dove on the sill outside the window. It was early; I had not yet raised the blinds on the ensuing southern Nevada day, but I hadn’t fully closed them the night before, either. A two-inch crack ran along the bottom. I leaned over and put my face at the level of the windowsill, so that when the bird lowered its head, we were locked into an impromptu stare, seemingly as conscious (and certainly as vivid) as any human interaction. That eye focused on me with a bewildering intensity—part recognition (oh she’s the one with the seed) and part fear (she’s way too close). We held our respective poses for several seconds, separated by a thin pane of glass, before instinct took over and the dove whistled up to the top of the tree.
The whistling sound Mourning Doves make comes from their wings, a warbling cadence at its loudest upon takeoff and landing. The wing muscles are uncommonly strong—strong enough to cut air into song, to fly across the entire Gulf of Mexico. But the doves in Las Vegas are uninterested in heroic flights. They glide from the top of a stand of two-hundred-year-old pines—trees that were here when John Fremont first mapped the way to the oasis—and arrive with a lilting tune in my backyard.
But when a stranger walking a dog comes up the path, or when Lily, a gray tabby, saunters by, they are all flutter and shrill, veritable bundles of nerve and feather. Perhaps the whistle is one of the reasons why the Mourning Dove is among the most hunted birds in North America—it’s easy to identify. They coo, too, and often. I hear the gentle notes of their greetings when one of the flock lands in the tree. And now, as the oleanders push open new leaves, and the orange trees burst into frill, the more elaborate musical notes in the doves’ songs of seduction are counterpart to the hum of traffic on the Strip.
The various species of hummingbirds are coming back to Vegas, too, this time of year, though one variety, Anna’s Hummingbird, visited the feeder every afternoon for a drink of nectar all winter long. Soon the finch will be flocking in the ash trees and willows, and if I’m lucky, I might even glimpse the fluorescent plumage of a Western Tanager, like the one I rescued late last summer after it mistook the glass tower of The Sky condominiums for the real sky. I scooped up its dazed little body in my hands and placed it in the lower branches of a juniper, where it sat, a stunned ball of fluorescence, like a misplaced blob of neon.
Nature is one of the reasons why I love this city—the wilderness 20-minutes from my door, the flora and fauna surrounding my house. Whoever pictures Las Vegas as a parched patch of earth where developers erected a glamorous conglomeration of high rises and architectural oddities known as the Strip misses the real attraction.