Doves of love

Published 5:32 pm Monday, January 15, 2018

Homing pigeons brought the news of the winners of the first Olympics, became the world’s first air-mail service, delivered medications and even earned medals for gallantry in both world wars.

But these days, pure white pigeons trained to fly home mostly serve another purpose to add significance to the lives of humans: they simultaneously symbolize purity and joy at weddings and bring gravitas and peace to funerals.

More than 100 of these pigeons, also known as white rock doves, make their home with Cindy and Jim Rohrer at their Holland-area farm. The Rohrers have had the Chariots for Hire business for more than 30 years, mostly serving newlyweds who want to make a memorable exit from their reception in a beautiful white horse-drawn carriage.

White doves are highly sought after for symbolic releases during both weddings and funerals. Cindy and Jim Rohrer’s business, Chariots for Hire, provides the service free during the funerals of active-duty military, police and firefighters.

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Their customers started asking about dove releases, and with a farm with horses, chickens, dogs and cats, the Rohrers didn’t see much harm in adding doves to the list.

They started about 10 years ago with about 25 birds, which lived in a dovecote off the horse barn on their property. They now have more than 100 birds, all of which have been bred from those original 25.

When the dove business first started, they did nothing but weddings, but the Rohrers got more and more calls for funerals and memorial services. Cindy Rohrer was hesitant at first.

“I was really uncomfortable taking money from somebody during that kind of time,” she said. “But once I had done a few, I found out how much it comforts people. It’s sort of another way to ease their pain.”

The doves go mostly to funerals these days. They do funerals of active-duty military, police and firefighters in the Hampton Roads area for free.

“My husband’s a Vietnam veteran, so we try to do what we can where we can,” Cindy Rohrer said.

The weddings are more joyous occasions, though. Couples release the doves from a heart-shaped basket, or they can release them from their hands. To do a hand release, though, they have to come to the farm and practice beforehand.

“Some people are squeamish about holding birds,” she said. “The day of your wedding’s not the day to get comfortable holding a bird.”

The doves know how to find their way home from about 100 miles out, although nobody’s quite sure how they do it. Using the Earth’s magnetic field, celestial navigation and finding their way by sighting landmarks are all possibilities, as well as some combination of the three. But Rohrer thinks maybe they just know where their breakfast is waiting, since they aren’t fed until after a flight.

The white rock doves owned by Cindy and Jim Rohrer look docile but can fly up to 120 miles per hour if being chased by a hawk.

 

They’re trained in groups of 15 to 20 at the age of 5 to 8 weeks. The training starts with making sure they can master the one-way door into the dovecote, so they can let themselves in when they beat their handlers home from an assignment, which is most of the time.

Once they can do that, the first trip is to the front yard or to the back field, from which they only have a short flight home of a few yards.

The next flight is from about a mile away. Rohrer usually starts with the Holland ballpark. It’s the first taste of freedom, so the birds usually spend all day heading home.

“We train from the same place at least three days in a row,” Rohrer said. “By the third day, they’re usually home within minutes. They can fly easily, without stressing themselves, about 50 to 60 miles per hour.”

After the third day, Rohrer takes them the same distance away at a 90-degree angle. Once they’ve successfully returned from mile-long flights in all directions, she’ll start doubling it, eventually getting up to 40 miles.

“Once they’ve trained 40 miles out in all directions, they’re pretty much trained for 100 miles,” she said.

There are dangers to the doves’ job, namely power lines and hawks. If they’re being chased by a hawk, they can get off course and wind up in strange places. Rohrer has picked up her birds from the animal shelter in Sussex County, from the Eastern Shore and from a penitentiary in North Carolina, where an inmate had found the bird in the exercise yard and was attempting to feed it.

“Just like people, some are dumber than others, some just don’t make it home,” Rohrer said. “Or maybe they find some other place that’s more appealing to them. But most are really smart and want to be here.”