His doves leave wedding guests all a-twitter

May 31, 2001|By Kevin Cowherd

LET'S SAY you're planning to get hitched and want something a little different for immediately after the ceremony, instead of everyone standing on the church steps firing up Marlboro Lights and snapping unflattering pictures of you with their disposable cameras and thinking: How long before we get some food here?

If this is the case, you may want to call the Birdman.

The Birdman is Daniel Vitilio, a 39-year-old Kingsville man who started a business nine years ago called "Wedding Doves for Love." For around 300 bucks, Vitilio or one of his representatives will show up at your wedding in a snazzy tuxedo and release a dozen snow-white doves, which never fails to draw appreciative oohs and aahs from everyone.

"The flight of birds signifies a new beginning," he said yesterday at his home off U.S. 1.

It also signifies a hell of an entrepreneurial spirit. If you have any doubts that this is a great country, try going to North Korea and starting a dove-releasing business. Or sit down with a few of the ruling mullahs in Afghanistan and say: "Boys, I got a great way to jazz up our weddings: doves. Are you with me?"

Yet Vitilio's business has found a niche here. Last year, he did more than 300 weddings. He also does anniversaries, graduations and funerals. And his schedule for this wedding season again looks like Colin Powell's.

With more than 200 birds, he says he can do up to a dozen weddings a day. This Oct. 13, in fact, he already has 11 weddings booked. And he's done dove-releases for Hollywood and assorted big-shots, too.

A few years ago, his birds were in the movie "Major League 2," filmed at Camden Yards and starring Charlie Sheen and Corbin Bernsen. As recently as two weeks ago, he released some doves at a ceremony in Washington with President Bush. And disco/pop diva Donna Summer called to have Vitilio do his thing at her daughter's wedding near the Inner Harbor - a call Vitilio thought was a joke until his caller ID verified it was coming from California.

While he's reluctant to disclose how much a guy can make releasing doves for a living - "business is good," is all he says - it's clear Vitilio won't be hitting anyone up for spare change anytime soon.

He just moved into a new house on a 14-acre spread that features buffalo, zebra and peacocks, among other animals out back, and there's a late-model Cadillac and a big, shiny Harley-Davidson in the garage.

In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that Vitilio does not, technically, release doves at these ceremonies.

What he releases are white homing pigeons. Your garden-variety dove, he says, is too dumb to train to return. Plus it would be at the mercy of predators.

And wouldn't that be a bummer, you and your wedding party standing there beaming as the doves fly off, only to watch in horror as the poor things get shredded by a hungry hawk.

No, that's no way to entertain your guests.

Homing pigeons, on the other hand, are like the Carl Sagan of the breed.

They're trained by Vitilio, in 25-mile increments, to return to their home loft. As long as an event is within 100 miles of their Kingsville roost - where they have food and mates and maybe even babies - they'll be back.

How does a young go-getter like Dan Vitilio get into the dove-releasing business?

"I've always been into birds," says Vitilio, who was always finding and raising injured birds as a kid, and became a falconer when he was 14.

When he first got married in 1992 - he's now divorced and engaged to be married again - he had a guy hide behind a bush and release some doves as the wedding party left the church.

"At the reception," he says, "I started hearing compliments, people saying `Oh, that was really nice!' "

A couple of months later, Vitilio's aunt called. She said that unless Vitilio used his head and took a page from his own wedding and started making money releasing doves at other people's weddings, his uncle was going to do it. So Vitilio, a licensed auctioneer who was also buying and selling houses at the time, took the plunge.

Over the years, he's tinkered with various ways of working doves into the first, blissful moments of married life.

Plunk down enough dough and you can have something called a "Lovers Release" at your wedding, where the bride and groom emerge from the church, kiss and each releases a dove.

For a few more bucks, the ring bearer and flower girl can release doves, too. Then, of course, there`s the "Grand Finale," where a tuxedoed employee of "Wedding Doves for Loves" releases a dozen birds from a cage encased in white satin, and the birds flutter into the crayon-blue sky amid hoots and hollers from the crowd.

Anyway, as Vitilio says, business is good. Which means, of course, that looming on the horizon, are the inevitable copycats, those who would try to elbow their way into the dove-releasing business themselves.

Ask Vitilio about the competition and he makes a face like a guy who just found a hair in his yogurt.

"Oh, there's a couple of idiots out there," he says. "They're not even dressed in tuxedos! It's almost like ... " - here he affects the flatlined drawl of the true hillbilly - " `Hey, Roy, let 'em go!' "

You can get birds anywhere, is what he's saying.

You just can't get the Birdman.

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