Twenty-one white doves emerged from white wicker baskets on a recent afternoon in downtown Detroit and launched themselves into the air, drawing applause from people gathered below.
The birds, which are actually selectively bred homing pigeons, initially began heading south. Then their inborn navigational systems kicked in — call it Mother Nature’s GPS — and the birds turned around and flew north, back toward their home 100 miles away in Saginaw.
It wasn’t long after that Phyllis Stevens, co-owner of Saginaw-based Dreamers White Dove Release, got into her car and started the same return journey. But she relied on I-75 and her smartphone’s GPS. By the time Stevens arrived home two hours after the release, 10 of her 21 birds were already there, waiting on the roof of their pigeon loft in her backyard.
“Every time I see it, it always amazes me how they know to get home,” Stevens said.
The white dove release business is reaching new heights of popularity in Michigan.
Bird handlers and business owners are doing multiple releases every week from spring to fall for weddings, funerals, public events and special ceremonies — even high school proms. The latest trend is “gender reveals,” where partygoers look for a blue or a pink-painted dove to find out whether the expected baby is a boy or girl. (Handlers say the special paint is safe and soon washes off.)
The most common bird release in Michigan is for funerals, these owners said, and this service is particularly popular among black families.
“That lasting image of a dove taking off is far nicer I think than a shovel full of dirt,” said Joan Luther, owner of Winged Occasions dove release in Flat Rock.
There are roughly a dozen small and large dove release operations in Michigan. The price for a dove release starts about $150 and varies based on the number of birds, weather conditions and the event’s distance from their home. The further the distance, the higher the risk that not all pigeons will return.
For well-trained birds, the greatest danger isn’t getting lost but being attacked by a hawk. That is why some handlers have already stopped flying their birds over long distances for the remainder of 2018.
“The hawks come out and they are very vicious because they are looking for food. They want to get fat for the winter,” Stevens said.
Come spring, there is a heightened risk that some birds — especially the males — will get sidetracked on their flights by short-term love interests, shacking up for days or weeks with what Stevens calls the “bum pigeons that hang out on the overpasses.”
But even those waylaid birds often return home.
“They’re kind of like children. If you put a roof over their head and you feed them, they usually come back,” said Michael Phillips, owner of West Michigan White Dove Release in Hudsonville.
Bird handlers say they can legitimately call their service white dove releases because homing pigeons descended from rock doves.
“We call them doves because would you like to have some ‘pigeons’ released at your wedding?” said Luther of Winged Occasions.
Where there is controversy, it often concerns the dove releases that use real doves. Those birds, known as white ringneck doves, lack the survival and navigational instincts of homing pigeons and therefore won’t fly home and will likely die.
Handlers who raise and train white homing pigeons consider it unethical to release ringneck doves. It is thought that only a handful of outfits in Michigan use these throwaway doves.
“If you use doves, doves don’t come home. Those birds are just going to die,” Phillips said. “And after a funeral, you don’t want that thought in your head, ‘My nephew died, and they threw some birds up in the air, and they all died.’ ”
Still, some activists including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals consider any type of bird release problematic because the events can be stressful and life-threatening, even for homing pigeons that safely make it home.
“Is this their preference? To be caged, released and forced to do this repeatedly? Certainly not,” said Stephanie Bell, a director in PETA’s cruelty investigations unit.
A YouTube video surfaced last year of a white dove release during a funeral near a highway in which one of the birds flew directly into the path of a tractor-trailer, eliciting gasps from the gathered mourners. It is unclear where that incident occurred.
High return rate
Bird handlers interviewed for this article said the return rates for their birds are 90 percent or higher.
All 21 birds released last month in downtown Detroit made it back to Saginaw. There was one straggler, Stevens said, who eventually showed up four days later.
The Oct. 26 release was the finale for the Detroit Police Department’s “Stop Domestic Violence” event marking Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
Police Sgt. Kyla Williams said the department had ended the event in previous years with a balloon release and decided to try something different this year.
“Doves symbolize love, hope and peace, and love, hope and peace have meaning for domestic violence survivors,” said Williams, who found the visual spectacle of the release to be deeply moving.
“I thought it was beautiful and just amazing to see one of God’s creatures soar,” she said.
Release birds don’t naturally know to return to their coop; they must be trained.
Stevens said it generally takes 16 weeks to train a bird before it is ready to fly all the way from Detroit. The training regimen involves placing the birds into a travel cage, loading the cage into her car, then driving out every day and releasing the birds from steadily increasingly distances.
A 50-mile maximum radius is common for release businesses. Stevens said that her flock can handle 100-mile radius flights because they inherited genes from her late uncle’s racing pigeons for strong navigational sense. The longest her birds have ever flown was 120 miles, she said.
Because proper training is a major time commitment, handlers and business owners such as Stevens are often in retirement or nearing retirement and just working part-time.
“You have to keep them in shape — they’re like little athletes,” said Stevens, who has 150 birds in her release flock.
How not to hold
Birds can be released by hand as well as by basket. But one must hold them properly.
There was once a bride who held her pigeon way too close to her wedding dress.
“And it pooed on her,” Stevens recalled. “But the wedding planner handled it beautifully — ‘Oh, you’re so blessed. This bird blessed you.’ And the whole crowd clapped, and she let the bird go.”
The number of birds per release is generally up to customers. For West Michigan White Dove Release, the standard funeral service has four birds.
“Three for the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. One more for the deceased,” Phillips explained.
Winged Occasions, in business since 1990, has released as many as 100 birds at high school graduations and once let go 50 during a wedding.
The most Stevens ever released was 30 birds. That occasion was a remembrance service in Detroit this year for a 30-year-old man who was the victim of a violent crime. The release took place at the side of a street in desolate part of the city where the man’s body had been discovered.
“A big reason that someone will call is they feel that this gives a peaceful closure at the end of the funeral and brings a sense of comfort to the family,” she said.
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