Detroit Free Press
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) From weddings to funerals even gender reveal parties, people are hiring professionals to release doves into the air. 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.
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, at first began heading south. Then their inborn navigational systems kicked in 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 Interstate 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 the 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 at events like weddings, funerals and 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 paint is safe and soon washes off.)
The most common bird release in Michigan is for funerals, these owners said.
"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 longer 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 rest of the year.
"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.
Bird handlers interviewed for this story 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 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," Williams said. "I thought it was beautiful and just amazing to see one of God's creatures soar.
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 is common for release businesses. Stevens said her flock can handle 100-mile flights because they inherited genes from her late uncle's racing pigeons for strong navigational sense. The farthest her birds have ever flown was 120 miles, she said.
Because proper training is a major time commitment, handlers and business owners like Stevens are often in retirement or nearing retirement and just working part-time.
Stevens has 150 birds in her release flock.
"You have to keep them in shape, they're like little athletes," she said.
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 said.