Pigeon on a chimney (Photo by Don Reimer)
Pigeon on a chimney (Photo by Don Reimer)
While attending a recent wedding at the rustic Beaver Lodge in Hope, I was reminded of our own wedding celebration there some years back. We had envisioned that the ceremony would culminate with an outdoor release of two white doves that would rise ethereally toward the heavens.

I had checked online and contacted the nearest vendor of wedding doves, a fellow located some 10 miles away. That gentleman explained that, yes, he had some white homing doves, but they were mostly young inexperienced birds. “Wedding doves” are actually white pigeons that are selectively bred to achieve an appealing smaller size and sleeker profile. To train the birds, breeders transport and release them at progressively longer distances from the loft so the birds can learn their route back home.

Initially the dove owner expressed mild misgivings about granting the rental request for the young doves, but my enthusiastic persistence won the day. On the morning of the wedding, I collected the two pristine doves and proceeded directly toward Beaver Lodge. Well, sort of. Somehow I made a few wrong turns and drove in a sporadic serpentine pattern of switchbacks for about a half hour.

Following our inside ceremony, the wedding assembly moved outside to witness the unified dove release. As anticipated, the matching birds spiraled gracefully skyward and completed a couple of sweeping circular passes over our heads. What happened next puzzled the onlookers though. One dove returned to perch inquisitively on the lodge chimney. Soon the second bird joined it.

I did my best to reassure guests that the doves would eventually head safely for home, but matters quickly worsened. An adult goshawk streaked through the yard at eye level and glided like a heat-seeking missile into the wooded terrain beyond. Admittedly, the birder part of my brain thought, “Wow, a goshawk!” It was indeed fortunate that the hawk did not reappear since the doves continued to loaf on the lodge roof for what seemed like hours. Eventually the pair vamoosed to parts unknown. I deemed it inadvisable to phone the dove owner and inquire whether his directionally challenged birds arrived home.

Later on I pondered the whole experience. Were the young pigeons simply too inexperienced to find home? Had their convoluted journey in my car confused and disoriented them forever? According to avian researchers: “The ‘map’ issue, or a pigeon’s ability to tell where it is in relation to where it wants to go, is different from the bird’s compass system, which tells it which direction it’s headed in.”  Two main theories suggest that pigeons rely either on their sense of smell to find their way home or that they follow the Earth’s magnetic field lines.

Infrasound is another important navigational aid. Because birds can detect low-frequency sound waves well below the ranges audible to humans, they use sound to image the territory surrounding their loft area.  This process is somewhat analogous to humans recognizing their home by sight. Particular areas of the world are confusing navigational zones where birds repeatedly vanish or choose random compass headings contrary to their intended destinations. Other subtleties, such as local atmospheric conditions and peculiar terrain features, may also send birds in wrong directions.

So if your future wedding plans involve an adventurous outdoor component, I would suggest handing your guests a diamond-shaped paper kite to fly and enjoy in leisure at home.