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.
“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, Mich.
There are roughly a dozen small and large dove release operations in Michigan. (The birds are actually selectively bred homing pigeons.)
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,” said Phyllis Stevens, co-owner of Saginaw-based Dreamers White Dove Release.
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?’ ” Luther said.
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.
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.
Release birds don’t 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.