White Doves Fly High Over Graduation Events

Arpee Markarian

One hundred pure white doves will soar and swirl above Sartoris field on June 6 after the grads cross their gold-colored tassels from right to left during Glendale’s 81st commencement ceremony.

Friends, family and loved ones will gather at 5 p.m. to honor more than 1,000 students who have completed their associate’s degrees and certificates during the 2007-2008 academic year, 150 of them with honors. They will all see the white doves circling the skies at the end of graduation, a tradition at GCC for more than 10 years.

“The graduation steering committee wants to make the event as nice as they can for our graduates,” said Paul Schlossman, dean of student affairs. “They thought this would be a nice touch and we’ve been doing it ever since.”

For about eight years, Luthor Nelson, owner of White Dove Release in Hacienda Heights, has supplied the college with 50 to 100 rock doves, a species of racing pigeons that can fly up to 600 miles to get back home.

The birds live up to 20 years, and are used not only for graduation ceremonies, but also films, television and advertising.

In years past, the military used racing pigeons as the primary method to send messages from the battlefront to the command post in World War I, World War II and the Gulf War.

In the 1800s, Reuter’s, the British news agency, sent their pigeons between London and Paris to bring them news two days before everyone else did. Pigeons carried news all over Europe much faster than horses.

Nelson said nowadays, however, the pigeons are used primarily for such occasions as weddings, funerals, birthdays and anniversaries.

For 20 years, he has bred, raised and trained these birds.

“My favorite thing to do all my life, since I was a boy, has been to build cages for pigeons, and raise them,” he said. “And now I have found a way to share that beauty with hundreds of thousands of people.

“I think it’s a great way to celebrate,” he said. “I think it just speaks of a joyous celebration when people see white birds flying. It’s very exciting and breathtaking.”

Both the mother and father produce milk, which they feed their babies for four to five days, and both incubate them. The parents give them regular feed after they are weaned.

Then Nelson begins to train them. He releases them from their cage so they can learn to return for food. The first month, they are let out to fly around the garden.

From there, each month he increases the distance they are released from home until they can navigate a 50-mile radius. It takes four months for them to learn to travel this distance.

Studies have shown that these birds use magnetic fields and the location of the sun to find their way back home, according to Nelson. If left in the wild, they will stay in one location.

The day of the commencement ceremony at GCC, Nelson or one of his employees takes a cage of pigeons to Sartoris Field, 20 miles away from his home, until they are ready to be released. As soon as the cage doors are opened, they soar up 50 to 100 feet above the field, circle around together until they orient themselves to their location, and then begin to fly home to Hacienda Heights at about 55 mph.

Graduates and guests walk away with smiles and memories of commencement and those white doves.

“The feedback we have gotten from participants in the graduation, from students, faculty and guests has always given us positive feedback” said Schlossman, “so that’s why we’ve decided to keep doing it every year.”