They're supposed to be symbols of love and peace, but did you ever wonder what happens to those "doves" released at special events like the 9/11 ceremony at Nathan Phillips Square last week? Many never make it home and turn insteadinto a tasty lunch for hawks and falcons.
Specially bred white pigeons, which are relatives of rock doves, are used by reputable release professionals for weddings, funerals, sweet-16 parties and other special events. The birds have built-in homing instincts that allow them to return to their lofts from as far away as 250 kilometres.
Breeding and training the birds, however, takes time and dedication. Those looking for a quick buck use varieties of doves, typically ring-necked, that don't have homing abilities. It's not uncommon for unscrupulous outfits to charge $250 to release a pair of doves that are usually purchased from a local pet store for $10.
ON A WING AND A PRAYER
Even birds with homing instincts, who are specifically bred to return to their lofts, face peril. Their whiteness makes them stick out like a bull's eye to predators.
Because they're hand-raised and have no experience hunting for food, most who run into any kind of difficulty on the way home -- becoming tangled in a barbed-wire fence or hydro lines, or bumping into a window pane -- can't survive outside captivity for more than a day.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
"The concern that I have is that they're brought in by truck from long distances and kept in cages where they're highly stressed, and then exposed to large, noisy groups of people before they're released. Why is it necessary to have live animals at these events?"
Liz White, executive director, Animal Alliance of Canada
"We're told that they're trained to return home. But I'm never quite sure. Doves breed easily, which makes them highly disposable. You can buy them at a pet store for $2 each. The Ministry of Natural Resources is sup- posed to have laws against the release of non-native birds (pigeons and doves are not indigenous) into the environment. But it's done all the time. It's better than releasing balloons, I guess."
Barry Kent Mackay, naturalist
"We get so many of them in the shelter, both doves and fancy white pigeons. We've had 79 since October. People find them injured on their lawns. We're literally bombarded. We refer a lot of calls to other organizations and humane societies. It's like releasing a bunch of hamsters."
Nathalie Karvonen, executive director, Toronto Wildlife Centre
"People get caught up in the terminology. They're actually pigeons that we select-breed to look like doves. I like to use the term dove, because when you say pigeon, people imagine those grey things crapping underneath the bridge on the DVP. But they're cared for better than most people's pets. We'd be out of business in two weeks if they didn't fly back home. Yes, we lose a few, 30 to 50 a year out of a flock of 150. But that's the last thing we want to do. I've watched people when the birds are released. They're really excited by it."
Ken Harrison, owner, White Wings Worldwide, the company the city hired for Sept. 11 remembrances at Nathan Phillips Square