What happens when doves get released?

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Aug. 8 2005 7:00 PM

When Doves Fly Away

What happens to all those birds they release?

Come fly away. Click image to expand.
Come fly away

Huge crowds turned out in Hiroshima Saturday on the anniversary of America's nuclear attack in World War II. A bell rang at 8:15 a.m., exactly 60 years after the bombing, and 1,000 doves were released into the sky. What happens to the doves after they fly away?

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber (@danengber) is a columnist for Slate. Send him an email at danengber@yahoo.com.

It depends on what kind of birds they are and how they're raised. Newspaper accounts don't identify the species released in Hiroshima, but white "peace" doves—the kind pictured in Picasso's famous poster—fare very badly in the wild. After centuries of domestic breeding, the white ring-neck dove is ill-equipped for urban survival. Bird rescue workers say that a ring-neck dove released in a city will likely starve—if it doesn't get hit by a car or eaten by another bird first.

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Since white ring-neck doves are so fragile, companies that release "doves" at special events use white homing pigeons instead. (Pigeons and doves are in the same family of birds, and the differences between them are more semantic than scientific. Homing pigeons used to be called "rock doves"; the American Ornithologists' Union now calls them "rock pigeons.") After a trained release coordinator lets the birds go, they immediately fly back to the place where they're kept. Trained homing pigeons can find their way over distances as far as 600 miles.

Even if it doesn't get all the way home, a domestic rock pigeon stands a much better chance in the urban wild than a ring-neck dove. (The feral grey birds that thrive in American cities are also rock pigeons.) While ring-neck doves were bred in cages to be kept as pets, rock pigeons were bred in fields to be eaten. Adult pigeons had to care for themselves, while their offspring, or "squabs," were taken away and served for dinner.

According to the voluntary standards created by the American White Dove Association, homing-pigeon releases can only take place outdoors on a clear day, with ample time for the birds to fly home. A typical company might charge $250 or more to release 12 white pigeons.

Dove releases are fairly common in the United States, but there aren't many laws concerning the abandonment of domestic birds. In most jurisdictions, anyone can walk into a pet store, buy some white ring-neck doves (for about $25 each), and release them at a wedding or a funeral.

In 2002, the organizers of a 9/11 memorial event in Jersey City, N.J., * tried to hire white doves from a professional release company. When they discovered that all the local homing pigeons were booked up, they bought 80 squabs from a poultry market in Newark, N.J. But on the day of the event, the young pigeons could barely fly; some never took off, others crashed into buildings, and at least one drowned in the Hudson River.

Explainer thanks Louis Lefebvre of McGill University, Laura Ireland Moore of the National Center for Animal Law, Karen Purcell of Cornell University, Deone Roberts of the American Racing Pigeon Union, Nancy Smith of White Doves of Modesto, and Len Soucy Jr. of The Raptor Trust.

Correction, Aug. 9:This piece originally stated that a ceremonial release of doves to commemorate 9/11 took place in New York City. It was in Jersey City, N.J. (Return to the corrected sentence.)