All of our birds are snow-white Rock Doves, a variety of racing homing pigeon. They have been raised and trained by us and lived in our loft since they were babies, and yes, they do return home by early evening. Rock Doves are extremely strong flyers when properly conditioned, and are easily capable of non-stop flights of 200 miles and more, at an average speed of 40 mph. This is in stark contrast to purchased Ring-neck doves found in pet stores; Ring-neck doves were bred to spend their lives in cages, and are poor and timid flyers. If released, “cage doves” will normally hop to the nearest tree or perch, and are at quite a loss for what to do next or where to go. They typically perish quickly, either from hunger or predation.
The exact manner in which our birds find their way home from great distances is not known, but all homing pigeons have this instinct inbred. Of course, instinct and ability are somewhat different; that is where we humans are able to help a little. The birds have been raised since babies in their home loft, and will always seek to return. One cannot buy adult, trained birds, and hope to re-train them to a new home – when released, they will always head for their original home, even if it is on the other side of the country. Rock Doves (that survive predation at an early age) live three to five years in the wild; we expect a working life of seven to 10 years for our birds, but they can live well past that age with loving care.
Birds assigned to each event are separated from the loft the day before, and fed a limited diet to minimize the possibility that they will embarrass themselves at your function. They are not fed on the morning of the release, further reducing the likelihood of accidents, and encouraging a speedy return home. They all take baths before loading, to look their best for your ceremony.
Our birds are our livelihood, loved and are treated like royalty in our loft. They live in a spacious indoor heated loft, regularly cleaned, and each have their own favorite box to perch in. Remember, we cannot MAKE them fly home, they return because they want to – they feel comfortable and safe there. On a typical day, they will all be awake and waiting in the aviary for us early in the morning. The aviary door is opened, and they enthusiastically jump out and form up for a quick group flight around the neighborhood. They will stay out flying for a couple of hours or so, then return to the loft for the breakfast and fresh water that will be waiting for them. After a short nap to digest the food, they are loaded into cages, and driven out some distance for a training release. There is always a little discussion over which bird has been where, who should be released at what location, should we take a couple of older leaders for this group, or do the younger birds need to be able to do this on their own?
The birds are released (and usually will beat us home), and after a successful return flight, will settle down to sun themselves for the remainder of the afternoon. They love baths, and we will frequently fill bathtubs for them at this time.
In the evening, they will start to get a little hungry, and return to the loft for the evening meal and drink, before settling in for the night. At this time, we check to see if everyone has come in, round up any stragglers, and lock the loft for the night to prevent the entry of predators.
Each bird is handled daily, and given a quick check-over. They are fed premium food, clean water and supplements as needed. The feed is changed with the seasons, in tune with the bird’s eating habits. They are all vaccinated, and medicated as necessary. We have a separate “Hospital” loft to quarantine a bird with say an eye cold or respiratory infection. Doves do not pass illnesses to humans.
Whenever the birds are out of the loft (their home), a trap door is opened that allows the birds to enter the loft at any time, but discourages predators and prevents their leaving until released. Young birds – as young as 30 days old – are repeatedly placed outside the loft, and shown how to re-enter from the landing board outside. They are very timid at first, and crowd on the platform, without trying to fly away on their own. Over the next few months, they are gradually taken out and exposed to longer and longer “flights” – the first may be no more that 10 feet or so. Within a month, they are comfortable with the loft and immediate surroundings, and will be putting themselves away (entering the loft for food and water) as dusk approaches.
Throughout this period, they need careful supervision, as they are quite vulnerable to attack by predators, primarily hawks, but also domestic cats. At this point, they will begin to form up into a group known as a “Kit”, and fly in circles around the loft. Training flights may be 100 yards or so, the birds being released in clear sight of the loft. Gradually, the distances to release points are increased, the birds being released in all directions, North, South, East and West, always within sight of a place that they have been before. At some point, the birds become inquisitive and confident, and start taking off on their own to check out the area, circling for fun. At this point, distances are increased markedly, by five mile or so increments, until we reach the limits of our service area. While the birds could at this point in their training be released a couple of hundred miles away and return, it’s a long way to drive, the potential for losses is too high – and besides, we worry too much about their welfare. Overall, it will take 6-8 months to train young birds – and will add a considerable amount of mileage to the vehicle. Thus, we invest a tremendous amount of time in each bird before it is ready for service.
Doves do not normally fly at night, and if not home by dusk, will look for a place to roost for the night, and continue their journey in the morning. Unfortunately, while they can out fly most predators while in the air, they are very open to predation while roosting in the open. For that reason, doves are not released at night, and are released only with plenty of remaining daylight for them to return safely home – usually, two hours before sunset is the latest release time. While they fly at about 40 mph, they do not always take the most direct route home. The best research indicates they fly using a “map and compass” approach. Magnetic particles in their head give them a direction to fly, they will fly in that direction until they either see something they recognize – the “map” – or the “compass” tells them that they heading off to one side of home, and they re-adjust the flight path again looking for something that they recognize. Two hours before sunset is offered as a generally applicable guideline, and may be modified depending upon circumstance. Distance, weather, wind, familiarity with the release location all will influence the bird’s ability. Please call us with any questions.
We will normally try to maintain a minimum of 60 trained birds, in order to be able to reliably fulfill your needs. In addition, there will be some young birds, some nesting birds with hungry babies to feed, a few birds molting that are a little bashful to go out in public, and maybe a few “wounded warriors” on the recovery path, bringing the total in the loft to 100-120 birds.
The birds are a never-ending source of wonder to us, we constantly marvel at their beauty and ability. We never tire of seeing them fly, and are always willing to “talk the ear off” of anybody interested. As you can imagine, our birds have entwined themselves in our hearts like our children.