BIRD WATCHING Homing pigeons replace doves at weddings
After the birds are released, they are getting stranded in the world where they don't belong.
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
MONTEREY, Calif. -- Looking for doves in all the wrong places? That's what rescuers from the Monterey County, Calif., SPCA have been called on to do all too often lately.
If it's out on its own, any place is the wrong place for a domesticated Eurasian collared-dove. But rescuers have found 19 lonesome doves recently, and the SPCA is worried about how they ended up that way.
"We found two huddled together on the beach," said Beth Brookhouser, director of community outreach. "That's not their normal habitat. But it is a pretty normal habitat for a wedding."
And that's the fear -- that doves released at weddings are getting lost, stranded in the world where they don't belong.
"People just presume the birds will be OK," said Sue Campbell, wildlife center supervisor. "But they're not always OK."
In fact, all the rescued doves arrived at the SPCA injured from attacks by other animals or starving and too weak to fly.
Releasing doves at weddings has become quite popular in the past two years, said Karolyn Hill, whose business, Bay Area Doves in San Jose, Calif., provides birds for that very purpose.
Serve as stand-ins
However, their birds are not really doves.
"They're a white strand of homing pigeons," Hill said. "Doves would never make it."
She and her husband, Jimmy, make this distinction clear to all their customers.
In fact, every business contacted for this story said their "doves" are actually homing pigeons, especially bred to be white and smaller than usual -- in other words, to look like doves.
At Wings of Love in New York, Vincent, who didn't give his last name, said that after 25 generations of breeding "for looks and brains," their pigeons were "prettier than doves."
So there's no reason to release doves, he implied, especially because "that would be like releasing them to be cat food."
The homing pigeons at Bay Area Doves are carefully trained, Hill said. "They always come home. ... Our birds are our first priority."
Becky Miser, co-owner of Ala Blanca in San Juan Bautista, Calif., said they also put their birds first. "All of our pigeons are banded," she said. "We know when they don't come home, and it's very rare."
Not properly banded
So what about the 19 birds at the SPCA? They're obviously doves, not homing pigeons. And they weren't wearing identification bands, although three were wearing some sort of flimsy bands around their legs that Campbell hadn't seen before and that carried no useful information.
Does that mean the SPCA birds weren't released at weddings after all? Perhaps, but not necessarily.
Miser said that at times she and her husband, Steve, have received calls from people who aren't satisfied with pigeons, who specifically ask for actual doves or white zebra finches to use in religious ceremonies.
The Misers always refuse.
Still, she said, "If someone like that walks into a pet store and buys a bird, who knows what they're buying it for?"
And that's not the only possible problem. "There are many backyard breeders -- 'hobbyists' we call them -- that will let birds go at a friend's wedding," Miser said. "And there's no way of regulating that."
Campbell feels sure that people wouldn't release doves at their wedding if they knew the dire fate they would almost certainly face.
Meanwhile, the 19 rescued doves have all recovered, along with 25 others that the SPCA took in from an elderly woman who could no longer care for them in her backyard aviary.
Eight racer pigeons that came to the SPCA with injuries from predators have also recovered. These were apparently lost during races, then abandoned by their owners -- who may well consider the birds "failures" for not making it home as they were supposed to.
The SPCA has tried to track down the owners since these pigeons do have identification bands, "But nobody's ever returned a call," Campbell said.
That means about 40 healthy birds are flocking together at the wildlife center these days and the SPCA is busy looking for homes for them -- in all the right places.