Ceremonial White Dove Releases

Ceremonial White Dove Releases
Mike holding one of his birds at a white dove release ceremony.

When ceremonial white doves lift up and soar off into the sky, it is a mesmerizing, achingly beautiful sight that momentarily stops time. Throughout history, pristine white doves have symbolically and visually embodied the deepest human emotions, whether of sorrow and loss, joyful celebration or religious significance.

However, those lifetime memories inspired by white doves released heavenward, harshly contrast with what can happen next, if the released birds are not professionally trained to fly home. What happens to white doves after release? Sadly, few people ask questions, or verify professional credentials of anyone offering the service.

Healthy birds professionally bred and trained for their superior homing instincts and flight skills, and banded for owner identification, are the only birds that should be used for humane ceremonial release, according to the National White Dove Release Society (NWDRS), American Dove Association (ADA), National Pigeon Association (NPA) and the National Audubon Society (NAS). Professional bird trainer/handlers belong to one or more of these organizations and abide by established, ethical standards of bird care and ownership.

Trained homing birds rise directly up into the sky after release, circle above to gain their bearings and fly away. Capable of flight speeds from 70 mph to 80 mph or more, with quick maneuverability and keen vision, they swiftly reach their highest flight elevation. This ascent helps thwart hawks who hunt by high-speed downward dives. The birds return directly to their home lofts, usually with a 90% or higher safe return rate, according to experts.

Untrained, non-homing birds released for ceremonies, usually land immediately and may never leave the release area. Those blindingly white birds, fed, watered and protected from their hatch date, have no knowledge of how to find safe food, water and shelter. Confused and waiting to be cared for, they perch in trees, stand or aimlessly walk around, approach or follow people: easy prey for air and land predators. Others die of dehydration or starvation.

Mike & Carolyn Pirrone holding their ceremonial white birds in front of one of their lofts.n front of their home loft.
Mike & Carolyn Pirrone holding their ceremonial white birds in front of one of their lofts.n front of their home loft.

One local expert, bird trainer/handler of fifty years, Mike Pirrone and his wife, Carolyn, formed their business, Pirrone White Dove Release, in 1996. Their  business was a complete surprise. Mike Pirrone unintentionally bred two white birds from his flock of racing pigeons; a forty-year hobby that won him countless awards. Pirrone took his white birds to St. Paul’s Catholic Church, for release during services. That sparked continuous requests for white dove release ceremonies.

“We see the birds – living symbols of purity and hope –  bring comfort, peace and closure for grieving families or add so much joy to celebrations. We meet wonderful people who invite us into their lives to share and commemorate their sacred milestone events and we realized, this is what we are meant to do,” the couple said. “Money is not the priority. What these white birds mean to people, the emotions of the release ceremony and how it affects families, that’s what matters.”

There is some confusion about the seemingly interchangeable use of the terms dove and pigeon to describe these white birds. According to the National Audubon Society, there are approximately 300 different species of doves and pigeons in the family Columbidae.  Renowned ornithologist Kenn Kaufman, Audubon field editor and author of multiple bird field guides, explained that, “…pigeon and dove are two different words for birds in that family…like egret and heron.”

John Glisson overcame autism to earn the rank of Eagle Scout and is pictured with his father, George Glisson at a white dove release ceremony held in his honor by his family.
John Glisson overcame autism to earn the rank of Eagle Scout and is pictured with his father, George Glisson at a white dove release ceremony held in his honor by his family.

Although related, birds capable of learning to home long distances after release, are not domestic doves, Ringneck Doves or other varieties often sold at pet stores, pet bird shows or online.  The birds with powerful homing instincts and fast distance flight ability are homing pigeons specifically bred for their white color.

Homing pigeons possess an internal compass in their brains. Once successfully trained, that compass guides them with unerring accuracy back to their home loft.  This ability made them valuable throughout history as messenger-carriers, and later for the worldwide sport of pigeon racing. Homing carrier pigeons were used extensively for military communications by the 19th century. They were the only reliable means of communication during both world wars.  

The Pirrones band and train their birds to home as soon as the chicks are weaned, at about a month of age. From initial short backyard flights to and from  their lofts, by the age of five months they easily fly fifty miles back to their home loft. Because these birds can live up to twenty years, this commitment is longterm. The Pirrones keep every bird for the duration of its lifetime, which currently has Mike busy constructing another new loft for additional space.

The white color that distinguishes these birds as an historical symbol of love, hope, peace and purity, also makes them more vulnerable to predators after release; a fact upheld by critics of release ceremonies as inhumane.

The Pirrones, parents of two and doting grandparents of five, care for their birds as lovingly as their children. They painstakingly take every possible precaution, and say the birds are born to fly and love the freedom of release and flight back home. Every Pirrone bird is blessed by a Catholic priest from their church.

With safety a constant priority, the Pirrones have a proven system for successful flights. Only fully trained birds are released, in pairs or more; they fly best in a flock. The Pirrones are practically meteorologists, who follow NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association) reports and monitor weather conditions 24/7. Their birds only fly in daylight and good weather; rain or wind postpones or cancels events. They inspect release sites prior to every ceremony to assess danger and are experts at spotting, distracting or warding off hawks pre-release. They only accept events within fifty miles of the birds’ home loft, although the birds are capable of longer distance flights.

Mr. Pirrone, one of eight sons born to a large Italian family in Philadelphia, grew up raising racing pigeons and shared a lifelong love of the birds and the sport, with his father. After he and Carolyn married, they relocated to Jacksonville in 1980. The Pirrones had careers: he in the Mayport shrimp industry and Carolyn at Mayo, Landstar and Ford.

Their “retirement” business training birds for release ceremonies comes complete with special decorations, creative baskets for the birds and a framed dove keepsake for participants. They keep in touch with families and both agree that it has brought a higher, completely unexpected purpose to their lives.

The Pirrones describe a dark side to this beautiful ceremonial tradition, and it centers around unscrupulous individuals who purchase any white squabs (fledgling birds) to use for release ceremonies. Purchased for a few dollars from poultry farms, backyard breeders  or elsewhere, these birds are bought solely for their white color, not any homing or distance flight ability, with no intention of any training.

These birds are often kept in squalid conditions, with little or no recommended care or necessary vaccines to prevent disease and infection. They are not treated with any compassion, but are deliberately raised as cheaply as possible: products to be sold, released and abandoned for maximum, quick profit.

This article was inspired by the day my daughter called home from college to tell me two pure white doves – with no leg bands – were on her dorm balcony, obviously tame and begging for food. What followed was a lot of research that resulted in a happy ending for those birds and a need to publicize the facts and issues regarding white doves released for ceremonies.

The Pirrones’ white homing pigeons with leg bands clearly visible.
The Pirrones’ white homing pigeons with leg bands clearly visible.

If an obviously tame, lost, ill or injured bird is found, first secure the space where they are located to prevent flight, or provide safe confinement in a pet crate or cardboard box with holes for light and air. Next, provide bird seed and water. Note any injures or if the bird’s leg is banded.  Whether it is white or has colors, write down the number and letters on the leg band and contact: www.nwdrs.org,  National White Dove Release Society or www.npausa.com, National Pigeon Association. The band number and letters identify that bird, its owner and registration for safe return. If there is no identification band, contact any local animal welfare organization, bird rescue group or lost pet organization for help.

Those interested in a professional white dove release ceremony, can visit the following websites for extensive information and how to contact a reputable, professional homing bird trainer/handler.

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (2 votes, average: 3.50 out of 5)