The suburban streets of Fords, New Jersey, are quiet. Modest houses with well-kept lawns are all you see for miles, with the occasional diner sandwiched in between. Harry Witt’s home is no different from all the others in this small town about 20 miles south of Newark, except for the 140-square-foot loft that houses 33 pigeons in his backyard.
At nearly every stage of Witt’s life, pigeons have played a role. When he was seven, Witt came across an injured pigeon on his way to school; he took it home and nursed it back to health. Years later, when he started dating his wife, AnnMarie, he learned that her brothers were pigeon racers, with a pigeon loft in the backyard. This got him into the world of competitive pigeon racing, where he and his countless pigeons quickly rose through the ranks, winning money in 400-mile-long races where his birds competed against thousands of others. He grew tired of that after about 20 years, so in 1997 he sold his pigeons and turned his old racing loft into a cabana for his pool. People stop liking you when you get too good at something, Witt says, holding a large, dusty trophy retrieved from his garage. “This was in 1990, 400 miles.” Often, though, his wife would catch him standing outside, gazing up at the wild pigeons. It was clear that he missed them.
And so Witt founded Kaila’s Love Doves, a white-dove-release business that he runs out of his home. The birds are colloquially known as “doves,” but they’re really homing pigeons. Except in color, they’re more similar to the birds you’d see on the streets of New York than anything else. He releases the doves at any event at which someone deems doves necessary—weddings, funerals, sweet sixteens, the Pope coming to visit—and they fly back to his house, many miles away. At the peak of the season, which runs from April to November, it’s common for Witt to shuttle the doves in his car between multiple events in one day. Weddings are the most popular, he tells me, with funerals coming close. Less frequently, Witt’s birds serve as costars in celebrity photo shoots and fashion campaigns. He uses a different type of white dove for these, called Java doves, which have no homing ability and don’t get released at live events. They’ve appeared in a campaign with Kate Moss, in a photo shoot with Faith Evans, in a Barneys advertisement. Witt personally doesn’t like working with celebrities, so he often outsources these sorts of jobs to one of the couple of contractors he has on deck.
Inside his pigeon loft, a big three-room box with heated floors, Witt doesn’t flinch while his 22 females, called hens, flap wildly around him. His pigeons, much like racing pigeons, are carefully bred and pedigreed for both appearance and ability. He can trace the lineage of his flock back three generations, as displayed on a dry-erase board hanging on the wall of the loft that outlines the family tree. Witt handles the birds with ease, and inside the chaos of the loft, they all look especially identical. “I know exactly which one is which,” he says, holding his oldest and favorite, a 20-year-old hen named Coop (Witt says the lifespan of his birds is around 15 years; pigeons live between three and five years in the wild). “I get attached to them, I have names for some of them.” They like him back, to a point. When we try to get a picture with one of them on Witt’s shoulder, the task proves impossible as the pigeons refuse to stand still.
Witt lets his pigeons fly free for exercise and practice every day, and they sometimes disappear for hours. “It’s in their blood to race,” Witt explains. “Once they’re together and they’re flying home, they know where they’re going.” Witt worries whenever they fly away, thinking that he’s lost his pigeons forever, but they always come back.
Why people release doves—or pigeons—to commemorate life events is not entirely clear. The origin of the symbolic white dove is Biblical, and dove-release companies have capitalized on all of its possible meanings. Its symbolism often depends on context. At a wedding, the doves represent purity, hope, love. At a funeral, the doves represent God, the soul, peace, the spirit leaving Earth. At events with more ambiguous meanings, like the New York City marathon, or the Pope visiting Yankee Stadium, or photo shoots with Faith Evans, the doves can represent whatever the viewer wants.
In 1943, deep into World War II, British troops were scrambling. They had managed to reclaim the Italian village of Calvi Vecchia from Germany, but now they were unable to send a radio transmission to the Americans to stop a previously planned air raid on the town. Everyone's best (and last) hope was a seven-month-old homing pigeon named G.I. Joe. This bird, born in North Africa, was one of 54,000 pigeons supplied by the United States. Faced with the prospect of disaster, the soldiers set G.I. Joe off with his message telling the Americans to stop the bombing. He flew at a lightning speed of 20 miles in 20 minutes, ultimately saving the lives of about one hundred people. For his service, the three-year-old bird was awarded the Dickin Medal for animal gallantry by the British government.
Why people release doves—or pigeons—to commemorate life events is not entirely clear.
It wasn’t the first spy mission by the birds by any means. In WWI, Allied pigeon training was pioneered almost entirely by one man, Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Osman, the editor of the weekly newspaper the Racing Pigeon. Before Osman’s training efforts, Britain’s pigeon troops were nonexistent compared to the robust flocks maintained by the militaries of Spain, Italy, Russia, Austria, Germany, and France, where complicated networks of homing pigeons had already been established. To keep up, Osman set up a chain of lofts among the east coast of England and quickly trained birds to fly distances between 70 miles and 150 miles. By the time the war was nearing its end, 100,000 British messenger birds were under the care of 350 handlers across the country.
America’s WWI pigeon service was paltry and inefficient in comparison, using 324 handlers for a mere 6,000 birds. But not for long. In the 1930s and ’40s, the American military's flocks were led by Colonel Clifford Poutre, an innovator in the field of pigeon training. Poutre believed that the birds would respond better to love and affection than to previous methods of coldness and brutality. He threw out old techniques of forced starvation, which caused pigeons to come home out of hunger, and trained the flocks to come home of their own volition. Around 54,000 American pigeons were released during WWII, with dozens of them receiving medals of honor for their service.
These incredible birds, trained to deliver messages across long distances under dangerous circumstances and then find their way back home, are as mysterious as they are useful. Nobody knows exactly how their homing skills work, and scientists are still developing new theories, a relatively recent one being that the birds are following ultralow frequencies back to their homes. In an interview with National Geographic, Jon Hagstrum, the geophysicist who published a 2013 paper on this hypothesis in the Journal of Experimental Biology, explained, “They’re using sound to image the terrain [surrounding] their loft. It's like us visually recognizing our house using our eyes.”
Whatever the mechanism, pigeons won’t fly back on command without training. Witt begins instructing the young ones when they’re between five and eight days old, the sweet spot for getting the racing pigeon registration bands to fit around their legs. He gets them familiar with the loft by installing a screened aviary, allowing them to go in and out. Their development happens rapidly: by the time they’re six weeks old, they can fly for 500 miles nonstop.
After that training period, which ends at eight weeks, Witt introduces the birds to a business that has been dogged by reports of cruelty and untimely death by animal activists. Witt claims that over his 20 years in business, he has lost only five pigeons to electrical wires or hawks. You’re supposed to only use proper homing pigeons, which know how to find their way back, but more irresponsible breeders use ring-necked doves or King pigeons, which have no homing ability or survival skills in the wild. Some release their pigeons year-round, or in bad weather, or in the dark, putting the flock’s lives in danger. After November, the hawks come out. (“I imagine that the money is better than the life of the bird to [these trainers],” Witt says.) There have been some high-profile failures. One disastrous launch happened in January 2014 when, to everyone’s horror, Pope Francis’s “peace doves,” a Vatican tradition every January, were immediately attacked by crows and seagulls upon their release into St. Peter’s Square. During the Opening Ceremony of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the symbolic white doves, an Olympic rite since 1920, sat on the cauldron as it was being lit and were burned to death. Both incidents sparked outrage and led to these institutions changing their policies: The Vatican now releases symbolic peace balloons, and the Opening Ceremonies feature artistic substitutions ranging from dove-shaped lights to dove-shaped paper kites.
Release birds are a common find for pigeon rehabilitators. Volunteers with Palomacy, a San Francisco–based group dedicated to pigeon rescue and adoption, have gruesome tales of finding mangled doves in the wild, far from home, unable to fend for themselves. Domestic pigeons are socially monogamous and get attached to humans fairly easily, which can create tension between their dual identities as unwitting workers and pets. (Even Witt mentions how a cherished past bird, a hen named Football, appeared to have mated with him. “I was her sweetheart,” he tells me.) Palomacy connects pigeon sympathizers, with many people finding the 33,000-member Facebook group through a Google search after crossing paths with an ailing pigeon. “We have helped many ‘dove release’ victims lucky enough to survive long enough to be rescued before they are killed,” says Elizabeth Young, the group’s leader, who has been rescuing pigeons and doves full-time since 2007. According to the website, Palomacy’s foster volunteers care for around 150 birds at any given time.
To pigeon rescuers, release doves are bred into a world of cruelty. When they see white doves, they think of captivity rather than freedom. “There was a cancer-treatment center advertising on TV about doing dove release in celebration of remission and recovery,” one rescuer in the Palomacy Facebook group noted in a lively October 30 post I made asking about the white dove industry. “I thought of the irony, since many released doves are basically released into their own death.”
Each dove release involves a ritual within a ritual. On the day I meet Witt, he is on his way to Milltown, New Jersey, for a street naming for a six-year-old girl, Ariella Hopkins, who passed away in 2014 after a sudden illness. In the car over there, Witt talks about his other interests with as much zeal as he talks about his professional life with pigeons: He makes wine and beer; he’s a champion billiards player. He talks so much that he doesn’t realize he missed his exit until we’re nine miles out of the way.
Also in the car is Angelee, Witt’s 14-year-old granddaughter, who accompanies him to every dove release she can and will be the one to actually release the doves on this sunny but brisk Saturday. (Kaila, the namesake of Witt’s dove company, is his other granddaughter.) Angelee has been doing this for two years, becoming more serious about it once she moved from New York City to New Jersey. “I saw the smile on people’s faces, and I wanted to do it,” she says, wearing a black polo with white dove embroidery, same as her grandfather.
Then there was the bride who wanted the birds to deliver her wedding invitations door-to-door. “It doesn’t work that way.”
Even now, each dove release holds emotional weight for the elder Witt. “So many things are racing inside my head right now,” he says as he drives to the event. The behavior of the birds is often less predictable than dove releasers hope, and there’s always the possibility of the wind or other unexpected factors confusing the birds on their way home. The humans involved can prove difficult as well. One bride, Witt remembers, expected Cinderella-levels of avian obedience. “She wanted my birds to hold up the train of her dress,” he says, laughing. “I said, ‘This isn’t Disney World, that’s cartoons.’ ” Then there was the bride who wanted the birds to deliver her wedding invitations door-to-door. “It doesn’t work that way,” he adds.
We park the car and meet Ariella’s father, who says that he feels a strong connection to Witt despite knowing him for only a few weeks. It’s a picture-perfect small-town event, with children spinning each other in circles on the Ariella Hopkins Playground equipment. The doves are the finale of the ceremony, to be released when Ariella’s street sign is unveiled, and Witt tells me that he, Angelee, and Ariella’s parents will all be opening the hatch of the pigeon cage together.
Witt values the human relationships he cultivates through his job, and he gets deeply affected by each person’s reasons for needing the doves. “The 9/11 things were brutal, especially during that year.” He gets emotional talking about a release he did for a nine-year-old boy named David, who passed away from lymphoma in 2005. Years earlier, Witt had released doves at David’s parents’ wedding. Witt says that, to him, the doves “mean purity, spirituality—they symbolize love.” They bring him a sense of calm. During funerals, he always recites a small paragraph: “The release of a dove symbolizes love and peace. Just as these doves will now soar home to family, safety, love, and peace, so do God’s children soar home to heaven.” As he gets ready to release the birds for Ariella, a more prosaic concern emerges. “It’s a bit windier than I would like,” Witt says.
A few years ago, a raccoon clawed its way inside Witt’s loft and killed five birds, the most he’s ever lost at one time. It was a grisly scene that greatly affected him. “Another guy would just throw them away like you’d throw a chicken away,” his wife notes. But not Witt. “We had a ceremony,” he told me, showing me the small gravestone in his backyard memorializing the event. “Five white doves flew to Heaven to meet God above,” reads the inscription, with the identification number of each bird written underneath. When you consider the life of the birds, which was spent making death into a show, the tribute seems markedly understated. No white doves were released.
Driving back to his house after the street-naming ceremony, Witt spots his flock flying back. “They might beat us,” he says, looking toward the sky. Watching the doves fly away, you get the feeling that they’re soaring endlessly toward the unknown. “My heart breaks for the wild pigeons that are out,” Witt says. “I can’t feed them, because it would draw out hawks. Those are all pigeons, and they have nowhere to go.” His wife tries to comfort him. “But hon, God gave them a world to live in. They have somewhere to go.”