Emotions lift as flock takes flight

No one minds that homing pigeons stand in for doves

January 06, 2003|By Bill Teeter | Bill Teeter,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

FORT WORTH, Texas - The faint sound of wings beating reverberated above the funeral home as a cloud of white birds streamed aloft.

About 60 of them formed a tight flock and circled several times before flying off, all in the same direction.

"It was beautiful. It's like they are being freed - like a release," said Juanita Lancaster of Arlington, Texas, who watched at a recent quarterly memorial service at Laurel Land Memorial Park.

The idea was that people would think of doves and all the ancient spiritual symbolism doves evoke.

Symbolic, they may be. But these "doves" were white homing pigeons, who left Laurel Land and headed straight for the back yard of Scot Lindsey's tire shop in west Fort Worth.

There, the birds would land, rest, tank up on water and seed, and stand by until their next job.

Lindsey's business, Birds of Paradise, supplies the avian flourish for weddings, funerals and other special events.

The problem with doves is they just aren't reliable. They can be set free only once, and then they're gone. And there goes the owner's investment in breeding and raising.

After being released from a cage, doves may decide to stop on a nearby bush or on a tree limb, said Anna Lisa Hernandez, who runs Whitebird Ceremonial Bird Releases in Sacramento, Calif.

But what impresses spectators is a cloud of birds rising from the cage, circling and then heading off in unison, Hernandez said.

For that, you need the homing pigeon.

Lindsey has been racing "homers" for about 18 years, he said. He takes them to meets at which competitors gather at a pre-arranged location and release their birds. The birds fly home, where their arrivals are recorded by an electronic system triggered when they pass through special gates on their cages.

Then the time and distance flown to each coop are computed to determine the fastest bird, Lindsey said. (Although homing pigeons have been raced for centuries and have been entrusted with military, governmental and business messages, scientists still don't know how they find their way home.)

Lindsey got into the ceremonial bird-release business after doing one for a relative's funeral. The family liked the effect, so he decided to see if he could sell the service.

Now, Lindsey said, he and his homers work about 50 ceremonies a year.

For bird releases, operators use pigeons that are bred to be smaller and whiter so they resemble doves, Lindsey said.

Depending on the complexity of the release and the distance the birds have to fly home, a release will cost the clients between $100 and $350.

He normally uses birds that can find their way home from 100 miles away, but if customers are willing to pay more, he has birds that can fly farther.

Lindsey said funerals are the biggest part of his business, and he appreciates being able to comfort the grieving.

"They enjoy this a lot more than they do a big old spray of flowers," he said.

The birds travel in coops on a trailer attached to Lindsey's pickup. Over the years, the releases have gotten more sophisticated, and he has gone from manually opening the cages to using remote-control openers.

The birds are reliable, flying off in a swarm as soon as their cages flip open, he said.

Lindsey can't say as much for humans.

"I've had incidents like where the funeral director accidentally let the birds go at an inappropriate time," he said. "The whole service is based on timing and placement."

It doesn't matter that the birds are not really doves, said one observer at Laurel Land's service.

"It's a symbolic feeling that's important," Jeff Rhoads of Haltom City said.

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