“Dear God, make me a bird. So I could fly far. Far far away from here.”
It’s a memorable scene from “Forrest Gump”, young Jenny skips school and Forrest stops by her home to see why. She is standing in the backyard, wearing a sundress and looking morose. The two tear through a cornfield and hide among the stalks, Jenny’s abusive father stumbles after. She asks God to turn her into a bird and the camera pans out, in the distance a flock of white birds flies up from the field.
Something about a white wing in motion plucks the heartstrings. And catering to this preference has developed into a handsome niche industry, funeral doves. According to some estimates, there are more than 1,000 companies that specialize in “white dove releases” in the United States. Operators release birds at graduations, grand openings and bar mitzvahs, but their bread and butter events are weddings and funerals.
The actual birds used are white homing pigeons, which can return home from as far away as 600 miles; ringneck doves, which look almost identical to the untrained eye, are highly domesticated birds that cannot fly more than a mile. Dove clearly has more emotional appeal than a pigeon, and thus all providers label their services as such. But these are far from your typical nuisance city pigeon, hopping around the sidewalk pecking at crumbs pooping on everything.
“These birds are like the racehorses of the sky,” says Jeff Newsom, who, several years ago, founded the dove release company “Crystal Wings & Amber Dreams”, in loving memory of his daughter Crystal.
The company works with eight funeral homes across mid-Michigan and does about 325 total releases a year. Newsom keeps his birds in two separate spots, allowing him to widen his coverage zone. Most events are 50-70 miles from a roosting site, but many of his birds can fly several hundred miles or more.
Birds are transported to the event in decorative baskets. For some weddings, the release is a secret; Newsom has had to sneak down the aisle with a heart-shaped basket of birds. Once set free, the pigeons circle a few times then head for home, but training the birds to always circle is impossible. On windy days, they may fly straight home. Birds are never released in stormy weather, nor are they used from November 30th through the end of March, which is hawk season. “Everyone has hawk problems,” says Newsom. “In wintertime, they are just relentless.”
Homing pigeons are still used to relay messages by militaries across the world and the birds have a rich history. According to the book of Genesis, Noah released a dove to test whether waters had receded; the bird returned with an olive branch in its beak. Ancient Egyptians announced the arrival of important visitors by releasing pigeons and the Mesopotamian king, Sargon of Akkad, had each of his messengers carry a homing pigeon; if a messenger was attacked en route, the bird flew home for help. Genghis Khan relayed messages across the battlefields of Asia with homing pigeons and after the close of the Olympic Games in Ancient Greece, homing pigeons flew to the countryside to announce the winners. In the 1936 Olympics, held in Berlin, Germany, 20,000 white homing pigeons were released for the opening ceremonies.
A typical Crystal Wings & Amber Dreams release would include more like two birds. One patron requested 21 doves for a military funeral and the family of a 13-year old that died wanted 13 birds released. Releases cost $150-300, depending on the number of birds used.
Across the country, dove release businesses seem to be on the increase. One minor set back came when “Dear Abby” wrote a column on wedding doves, denouncing the practice as cruel to animals. The white dove release community was outraged and sent a slew of emails to set her straight on the facts.
“Trust me, my birds are treated well,” says Newsom. “If I lose a bird, I’m heartbroken for a week.”