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Homing Doves Sometimes Get Lost

Dear Bird Folks,

Today a white dove appeared in my yard. I’m pretty sure the bird belongs to someone since it is very tolerant of me and doesn’t interact with the wild birds. I live next to a church with a huge graveyard and I think the bird was probably released as part of someone’s memorial service. Any advice about what I should do to care for the bird and what do you think might happen to it?

– Pastor Jonathan, GA


Good afternoon, Reverend,

Thank you for the question. Isn’t this a lovely day? You probably can’t tell, but I’m trying my hardest to be polite. Usually when I respond to a question I make a few tongue-in-cheek remarks in the opening paragraph, just to see if anyone is actually paying attention. But I’m not going to do that this time. Somehow I don’t think it is in my best interest to wise off to a church pastor. There has been enough lightening flashing around here this summer; I don’t want to be responsible for any more.

You would be surprised by the number of calls that we get from people who come home to find an unexplained pigeon in their yard. We get them all the time. Anyone out there who still hasn’t discovered a lost pigeon in his or her yard may want to pay extra attention to this answer because judging from the amount of calls we get, the odds are that it will happen to you… and soon. And after you read this, not only will you be the household expert on lost pigeons but you won’t have to call and talk to me about it, which is a real bonus for you.

Except for the people who raise and train pigeons, I’d bet that most people think of pigeons as stupid birds that hang out in city parks, picking up cigarette butts over and over, thinking they are discarded Fritos. Well, you should know that pigeons not only aren’t stupid, but they are extremely adaptable. They can carve out a living in parts of the world where other birds wouldn’t last nine minutes. It doesn’t take tall trees, lush fields, or running streams to make them happy. The occasional sloppy human is all they need to get them through the day, and there is no shortage of sloppy humans.

The other thing to know about pigeons is that they are homebodies. They aren’t into all this crazy migration stuff that many other birds are in love with. Pigeons are like that weird uncle who never likes to go anywhere. They may spend their entire life in the same neighborhood. Oh sure, pigeons will travel about during the day in search of the leavings of the aforementioned sloppy human, but come nightfall they are back in the same beds that they slept in the night before. It is the pigeon’s ability to return to the home roost that has given it a place of importance in the minds of many.

For centuries returning pigeons have carried important messages for kings, generals, spies and people who are too cheap to pay the ever-escalating cost of postage. Today, many people raise pigeons for the purpose of racing them. Yes, racing them. The way I understand pigeon racing, the birds are driven hundreds of miles away from their homes and released. The first bird to make it back to the roost wins a trophy. It’s clear that pigeons have an amazing ability to find their way home and can do it very fast. What isn’t clear is what the winning bird does with all the trophies.

As good as they are, racing pigeons aren’t perfect and sometimes they lose their way. Why do they get lost? They can be chased off-course by hawks, become disoriented by bad weather or paid to throw the race by members of the pigeon underworld.

According pigeon clubs, the best thing to do for a lost bird is to offer it food and water; most of the time they are just exhausted and need time to recover. If you are able to capture the bird, pop it into a pet carrier and try to read the number on its leg band. Many racing clubs have websites where you can report the number. A dish of water for drinking and any kind of grain are all they need. Bread, Fritos or cigarette butts aren’t recommended for these birds. Remember, they are racers. If the bird is still loose, a little birdseed spread on the ground should do the trick. After some rest and a snack, the bird will usually continue on its way.

The white dove that visited your yard, Pastor Jonathan, is most likely a lost white homing pigeon (pigeons and doves are one in the same) that probably was, as you suggested, part of a memorial service. Many companies breed white pigeons to be used in ceremonies and in recent years it has become popular to release white doves at both weddings and funerals. I know there’s a joke about marriage and death in there somewhere, but if I make it, lightening would be the least of my worries.