Birds bring business

Area woman raises white doves and releases them at special events


Debbe Peacock, who owns Florida Dove Company, provides dove releases for special occasions. The birds are similar to homing pigeons; when Peacock releases them they fly home.

MICHAEL C. WEIMAR/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, January 4, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 3, 2004 at 11:11 p.m.
Her name is Debbe Peacock and she is a bird woman. But not the kind her name suggests. The polar opposite, in fact.
Peacock raises doves at her home near Hawthorne. White doves. She's got about 200 of them cooing away in lofts in her back yard.
When they get old enough, she lets them out to fly. Heads bobbing, one or two at a time, they will strut out onto a platform, take a look around and then take off. Soon enough larger groups are doing the same. Eventually dozens will be circling in the sky over her house.
"I have fallen in love with them. It is so peaceful to just sit and watch them fly," said Peacock, an often-squawking African Gray parrot named Captain Hook perched on her shoulder. "They'll start making bigger loops and all of a sudden they will be gone."
But these doves almost always come back. That makes them not only pets, but a bird of business for Peacock. The birds are basically homing pigeons - Peacock releases them at special events and they fly home.
Veteran's memorials, weddings, funerals, birthdays - all are events at which Peacock lets her doves fly.
Alachua County Veteran's Services Director Jim Lynch said doves have been released at the last two Veteran's Day services along with the dedication of a memorial at the new county courthouse.
Lynch said the releases are so popular that they will be a permanent fixture at the annual service.
"It is a real added attraction to our ceremony. It is really a moving type of ceremony especially when you have the family members of veterans who lost their lives participating," Lynch said. "I've received nothing but positive input from people who think it is moving, so we are going to keep it."
Peacock estimates about 400 people nationwide train doves, though not all make a business out of it.
A Web site for an association called the White Dove Release Professionals lists just 34 nationwide and is obviously incomplete - Peacock isn't on it.
Peacock stages releases throughout the area, and the birds usually beat her home. They can see for 35 miles when airborne and reach top speeds of 70 mph. That means they are faster than a hawk, which is a good thing for the doves.
"My biggest predator is hawks, but I've been pretty lucky and haven't lost that many," she said. "It's hard for hawks to sneak up on them. Hawks can dive pretty fast, but they've only got 35 mph speed. The only way a hawk can get a dove is if the dove is sitting around not paying attention."
Almost on cue moments later a hawk swoops by. The sight draws a flutter of anxiety and a mild expletive from Peacock. The reaction is warp speed from the doves as they break their circular routing and splinter in all directions to avoid the raptor.
Lynch, however, noted that it was a late helicopter rather than a hawk that threatened some of the doves at last year's Veteran's Day service.
Once again, however, the doves were fast enough to avert potential disaster caused by foggy conditions.
"The very first time we did it there was ground cover so the helicopters I had planned to come in were late in getting there," Lynch said. "At the end, as we were getting ready to release the doves, the helicopter was inbound. We released the doves as the helicopter was coming down. I thought, 'Oh God, we are going to have feathers coming down.' Fortunately they all avoided each other."
The first step in training the doves is teaching them how to get in and out of their loft through swinging doors.
Initially, the birds will perch on an open platform with food. As they get older they may wing it up to the loft roof and back down. Eventually they will begin circling - also called routing - overhead.
Once the birds can fly for 45 minutes, Peacock extends the training. She will pack them in a basket for a trip to the front yard for release. Gradually, she takes them farther and farther away from the house.
"I work them out to about 45 miles in all four directions," Peacock said. "These are basically homing birds. I have some 100-mile birds that are trained out to 100 miles."
They are released almost every day for training. Peacock said the birds need exercise and get antsy when they cannot fly.
While the doves can see a considerable distance, experts believe they find their way home through magnetic pulls in the atmosphere.
Studies have shown that blindfolded pigeons have no problem winging home. But when tiny magnets were taped to the heads of pigeons, homing skills went haywire.
Because of that, Peacock sometimes cannot train or release the birds.
"When we have these solar storms we do not release," she said. "It can be a beautiful, sunshiney day and you don't want to release them because they can get totally confused and lost."
While Peacock has all sorts of birds as pets, she didn't take to doves until she found herself having to hand-feed one from Bird World, a facility run by Ray and Cheryl Haufler in Hawthorne that takes in unwanted pet birds such as parrots.
Peacock volunteers there and had agreed to take home a baby dove to care for. Her passion for doves began with that baby on 9-11.
"One of the doves had kicked the baby out of the nest and wasn't feeding it. So I was standing in my kitchen hand-feeding it, and I turn on the TV and saw the towers coming down," Peacock said. "Everybody refers to the birds as the peace doves. After seeing how sweet these birds are, and the towers coming down, I decided that the doves would be a wonderful thing to release at memorials and tributes."
Cindy Swirko can be reached at 374-5024 or swirkoc@ gvillesun.com.

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