They can’t. They don’t know how. They haven’t been trained to ‘home’ — and anyway, they don’t have owners.
Instead these unfortunate birds, believed to be bought from dealers for as little as €10 each, will simply hang around pecking at the ground, easy prey for lurking predators such as foxes or hawks.
If they’re not attacked and eaten, they may starve slowly to death, or wander out into the road to be crushed by passing traffic.
Reputable dealers use highly-trained birds — some will use homing pigeons for the job, because they look like doves.
Once released from their basket, the carefully schooled birds will confidently fly back to their base.
But caring for and training them takes time — at least five weeks to train a ‘homing’ pigeon for example — expertise and money, so a dove-release involving trained birds can cost significantly more than using an untrained dove.
“If you’re having a wedding, a dove-release is a lovely idea but the problem is that you can get (untrained) doves quite cheaply — they’re literally disposable which is terrible,” warns Hazel Hurley, of Dove Days West Cork, a dove-release company based near Rossmore, which maintains a flock of about 40 trained birds.
“You’ll pay more for properly-trained homing birds which will return to their owners. It’s more expensive to do it right, but the birds can die if you don’t.”
Once abandoned, an untrained bird’s chances of survival are slim, says Billy Gallagher, of the Athlone branch of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
“Depending on how cold the weather is, they might not last a week. They may die of starvation and cold, or they may be attacked by hawks or cats because they’re easily spotted. Doves and pigeons are very much flock birds so they wouldn’t survive well outside the flock.”
Reports of white doves wandering around churchyards, gardens or on roads have been coming in to the organisation for some time, says Gallagher, who initially thought they were escaped pets.
Three doves were also spotted in the grounds of a local hotel after being released as part of a wedding ceremony. One of the birds started to hang around a local bakery, picking up crumbs, while the other two remained at the hotel. The bakery contacted Gallagher.
“This was the first time I realised that these doves were nothing to do with escaped pets. I realised they’d probably been released.”
He contacted some wedding dove-release companies to see if any of them owned the lost birds, but quickly learned that reputable dove-release experts will only use trained birds, or the homing pigeons which look like white doves.
It emerged, he says, that the dove from the bakery was an untrained white dove.
“It would have been born in a cage and reared in the cage until it was three or four months old, so the first time it got out of the cage was probably for the wedding. It wouldn’t have had a clue how to feed itself or how to survive.”
The wedding party wouldn’t have realised this, Gallagher points out — these birds would have been bought in good faith.
“These birds are used at funerals also. They’re thrown up into the air to represent the freed spirit of the person who has passed — children liken the doves to little angels going to heaven.”
Stories abound of untrained doves being released at weddings and funerals — Hurley says she’s regularly called out to rescue abandoned birds.
“These birds don’t know how to feed themselves in the wild. The couples don’t know what is going on, or what’s going to happen — they’re assuming that they just release the birds and the birds will fly back to their owners.
“On another occasion I got a call about a cemetery in Cork city, where there were three doves which had been released at a funeral.
“They were completely untrained fantail doves which had been left to die. They were in such a bad state that one died the next day, but we still have the other two.”
She criticises disreputable dealers who “exploit” untrained birds to make money from the dove-release tradition.
“These cowboys are causing immense distress and sometimes even death.”
Unfortunately, however, there’s no specific legislation covering this kind of abuse of birds, says Barbara Bent, chairperson of the ISPCA.
“People don’t realise what’s happening,” she says. “Letting off beautiful, striking birds which are not homing birds is a recipe for disaster. Don’t let off doves unless you are 100% sure that they have been trained to fly back to where they belong,” she warns.