16 min read

What Can Really Happen To 'Wedding Doves' After They Fly Away

"The reality is very different from the fantasy."

A white homing pigeon recently needed a lot of help to arrive home safely.

Now named Lucky Lue, the pigeon was found lying in a park near Ann Arbor, Michigan. There were clearly a lot of things wrong with him.

'Dove release' survivor pigeon getting rescued
Tallgrass Parrot Sanctuary

He was covered in lice and had worms, and seemed to have few instincts for survival.

It’s believed that Lucky Lue is a “dove release survivor.”

'Dove release' survivor pigeon getting rescued
Tallgrass Parrot Sanctuary

The Fantasy

"Dove release" services exist all across the country. These services are hired out to bring homing pigeons to celebrations or memorials. After being released as a symbol of peace or unity, after the perfectly timed photographs are snapped, the birds are supposed to return to a predetermined spot where the service can collect them. But things don’t always turn out as planned.

Dove release survivor on his way to sanctuary
Tallgrass Parrot Sanctuary

Homing pigeons — not actual doves — are the kind of birds that the American Dove Association (ADA) says are OK for dove release services to use, unlike actual doves.

“The white dove is not the same bird as the white homing pigeon ... Ringneck doves do not have the homing instinct and should not be released in any situation,” the ADA wrote. “Any ringneck doves that are released will not be able to fly far and become easy prey for predators, nor will they be able to forage on their own.”

Lucky Lue, even though he’s a homing pigeon, apparently got lost.

Lucky Lue is not the only homing pigeon who got lost after being released at a religious celebration or memorial, a wedding or funeral. And not all disoriented “doves” are as lucky as Lucky Lue.

Because of their pure white color, these birds can be easily targeted by predators. Some end up in shelters where they languish for months. Others perish soon after they’re set free.

'Dove release' survivor pigeon getting rescued
Tallgrass Parrot Sanctuary

Thankfully, a kind woman, who happens to be on the board of Tallgrass Parrot Sanctuary, a rescue for unwanted pet birds in Lecompton, Kansas, offered to fly with Lucky Lue in an airplane to escort him to his new home.

“Lucky Lue is flying here, first class, in [the] cabin on a plane,” Kail Marie, founder of Tallgrass Parrot Sanctuary, told The Dodo earlier this week.

'Dove release' survivor pigeon getting rescued
Tallgrass Parrot Sanctuary

After a long appointment at the vet to test for disease, after a flight and a night in a hotel, and after a drive, this lost homing pigeon finally arrived at his new home.

“He will be another ‘house’ pigeon here with Solomah!” Marie said.

'Dove release' survivor pigeon getting rescued
Tallgrass Parrot Sanctuary

Lucky Lue — and countless other white homing pigeons who come through shelters and rescues across the country — show there are mistakes, even when the right type of bird is thrown up into the air and flies away.

"The reality is very different from the fantasy,” Elizabeth Young, founder and executive director of Palomacy Pigeon & Dove Adoptions, wrote.

'Dove release' survivor pigeon getting rescued
Tallgrass Parrot Sanctuary

The Invisible ‘Doves'

Few people know the hazards of “dove release” as well as Elizabeth Young. Palomacy is a home-based foster care network that currently has 161 birds in its care, housed in 25 different homes and backyard aviaries. All of these birds are waiting for forever homes.

“Our rescue is full of ‘dove release’ survivors who got lost, injured, starved or all of the above,” Young told The Dodo. “And they are just the very lucky few. Most who get into trouble die alone, invisible.”

'Wedding dove' who ended up in shelter
Palomacy Pigeon & Dove Adoptions

When The Dodo contacted Young this week for this story, she was actually in the process of rescuing another dove release survivor from a shelter in California.

Mackenzie, a homing pigeon, has been waiting in a small enclosure in an animal shelter since October, when she was found on the ground in San Jose. Young has been trying to coordinate a house for her to live in while waiting to be adopted.

'Wedding dove' who ended up in shelter
Palomacy Pigeon & Dove Adoptions

“These domestic (unreleasable!) birds make amazing pets and our adopters love their birds,” Young said.

Young finally found space for Mackenzie in a foster home that already has several other foster pigeons there, and one of them is a dove release survivor like Mackenzie.

“Mackenzie is … in an aviary hanging out with a ‘dove release’ survivor named Nessie who was blinded by being dyed green,” Young said.

'Wedding dove' who ended up in shelter
Palomacy Pigeon & Dove Adoptions

The stories of these survivors are important but hardly ever told, Young said. And the ideological stances about the rights and wrongs of dove releases appear to be a moving target even within the industry. (Young pointed out that the ADA’s strong stance against releasing actual doves for celebrations is a relatively recent development.)

“The ‘dove release’ business owners lie … [They] will tell you they never lose a bird or ‘in 20 years, only one bird didn’t make it home’ — but that is absolutely untrue,” Young said. “It is a function of the practice — loss is built in.”

'Doves' released at weddings
Shutterstock

Hawks, ravens, seagulls, cats, rats and raccoons are some of the predators these captive-born and raised homing pigeons encounter. “Some aren't killed outright but are spooked off course and get lost. Some are hit by cars,” Young said.

Even with ideal training, homing pigeons getting lost is inevitable, Young said. “Even perfectly trained domestic pigeons are vulnerable when used to fly tens and sometimes hundreds of miles home from someplace they would never, by choice, be,” she said. “Lost and injured pigeons are inevitable.”

The Reality

There are other problems wrapped up with dove releases. Chiefly, these professional services, who use trainers to guide their pigeons, inspire botched and unprofessional copycat attempts that often end disastrously.

These DIY releases sometimes don’t even use homing pigeons — instead they use ringneck doves or white King pigeons, who have no homing ability at all.

 'Wedding dove' who ended up in shelter
Lost king pigeons who were released at a church | Palomacy Pigeon & Dove Adoptions

Perhaps one of the most infamous of these mistakes was the release of 80 King pigeons at a very public memorial event in 2002.

The organizers of a 9/11 tribute in Jersey City, New Jersey, had tried to hire a professional dove release service but they were all booked up for the first anniversary of the fall of the Twin Towers. So they went to a poultry market in Newark and bought 80 baby squabs, usually used for soup.

“[M]any of the birds plunged into the Hudson River, smacked into plate-glass windows on office buildings and careered into the crowd,” the New York Times reported. “One perched atop the hard hat of a construction worker whose company had helped clear ground zero.”

Lost king pigeon
King pigeon after release at church who was never caught again | Palomacy Pigeon & Dove Adoptions

Another cringeworthy release happened in 2014, as Pope Francis stood in a Vatican window with two children who were allowed to each release one dove.

“Two white doves released by children standing alongside Pope Francis in Vatican City as a peace gesture have been attacked by other birds,” the BBC reported. “A seagull and a crow swept down on the doves after they were set free … Tens of thousands of people watched as one dove struggled to break free.”

Reuters photographers snapped photos of the dismal "release."

Pure White

It is impossible to say how many birds die because of the dove release industry. For one thing, there’s no real way to accurately track losses of homing pigeons or the losses of other kinds of birds used in copycat releases.

“How many ‘releases’ happen every day? How many birds are used in each? How many get lost and then make it home a few days later? How many get outright killed that no one ever sees?” Young said. “I have no way of knowing … We are only rescuing the tip of the iceberg.”

'Dove release' roadkill
"Dove release" birds have few survival instincts and can end up getting hit by cars. | Palomacy Pigeon & Dove Adoptions

If people find lost or injured white pigeons, many are misidentified or seen as vermin.

“We can't even get shelters to properly identify birds that are brought to them. Domestic pigeons are routinely mistaken for feral, pigeons are misidentified as doves, etc. etc.,” Young said. “Most people who find a pigeon never think to take it to a shelter because most shelters don't help birds, and of those that do, many typically kill pigeons as ‘pests’ and ‘nuisance animals.’”

The brutal treatment of birds fated to be used for ‘dove release’ sometimes starts as soon as they hatch. “[Breeders] also cull/kill or discard the pigeon babies that hatch with color splashes rather than all white,” Young said.

Rescued pigeons
Two bred white pigeons who went blind when people tried to dye them green | Palomacy Pigeon & Dove Adoptions

Not every domesticated pigeon found in trouble comes from dove release services. Pigeons are also bred to be used for all kinds of human purposes — and none of them have the skills required to survive in the wild if they manage to get free.

That's why Young is ideologically opposed to the practice of keeping animals captive just for human entertainment — "I loved SeaWorld as a kid but now, knowing what I do, I am sickened," she said — and it's also why she is trying to give happy endings to the birds who can be saved.

Dove release survivor
Mackenzie, a survivor who is up for adoption | Palomacy Pigeon & Dove Adoptions

The Lucky Ones

Lucky Lue is settling in at his new home. He has met Solomah, another rescued pigeon at the sanctuary who recently decided to live inside the house. She is allowing him to perch next to her but is currently acting a bit taciturn, “giving him the cold shoulder,” according to Marie.

'Dove release' survivor pigeon meeting new friend at sanctuary
Tallgrass Parrot Sanctuary

Mackenzie is settling in at her foster home, too. She and 160 other doves and pigeons are waiting for loving homes. Hopefully, after all she’s been through, she won’t have to wait too long.

"Pigeons are incredibly intelligent, deeply emotional, gentle, loyal and loving," Young said. "I have rescued more than 900 in the past 11 years and they continue to amaze me ... When someone says they don’t like pigeons, I know they’ve never met one."

The ADA did not reply to The Dodo’s request for comment.

To help dove release survivors, you can make a donation to Palomacy Pigeon & Dove Adoptions. You can also inquire about adopting Mackenzie. And you can help save lives by spreading the word about what can really happen to these birds after they fly away.