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Bakersfield 'dove' release companies soar

| Sunday, Jan 16 2011 12:00 PM

Last Updated Sunday, Jan 16 2011 12:00 PM


DOVESCC.JPG Several doves were released toward the end of a funeral service Thursday at Union Cemetery on Potomac Avenue in east Bakersfield. This is becoming more of a common practice and a business venture for several Bakersfield companies.
DOVEONECC.JPG Larissa Chernabaeff, 7, helps out with the family business in Bakersfield. White Dove Memory supplies white doves for funerals, weddings, memorials and other special occasions. David and Katrina Chernabaeff, are the owners.
DOVETWOCC.JPG Several of the white doves, or homing pigeons, fly around their homes at White Dove Memory, which supplies birds for funerals and weddings.
DEOVETHREECC.JPG Several of the white doves owned by David and Katrina Chernabaeff get their exercise for the day by flying around their home. Ming Lake can be seen in the background. They are the owners of White Dove Memory.
DOVEFOURCC.JPG Katrina Chernabaeff, releases a white dove, in her front yard. She is owner of White Dove Memory.
DOVEFIVECC.JPG A white dove, or homing pigeon, gets ready to take off for daily exercise.
DOVESIXCC.JPG Katrina Chernabaeff holds one of many white doves they use in their business, White Dove Memory. Doves used for funerals, weddings and other special occasions are becoming more and more popular.

On her way to a graveside memorial service, 3-year-old Maryanna Gonzalez paused at a cage containing about a dozen softly cooing, snow white birds.

"Can I look at the birds?" she asked Brenda Luetger, owner of Bakersfield-based B.J.'s White Doves, which owns about 100 birds.

"Go ahead," Luetger replied.

The little girl peered through holes in the cage, a grin spreading across her face. "I see their feet. How many toes do they have? One, two, three..."

After an adult gently led the toddler away, Luetger told a reporter, "I like funerals better than weddings. They're more into the birds. At weddings, the bride and groom get all the attention."

The release of white birds at significant life cycle events is an age-old custom, and the number of Bakersfield companies that offer the service is growing. Two -- White Dove Memory and Holy Wings -- have opened in the last year or so.

Doves have been a symbol of peace and fidelity since ancient times. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, Noah dispatched a dove from the ark to search for dry land, and it returned with an olive branch.

But the dove had significance to Greeks, Romans and Egyptians, too.

The easily domesticated birds mate for life, share roosting and parenting, and dine mainly on seeds.

What they don't do is instinctively fly home, which is why so-called dove release companies avoid actual doves in favor of white homing pigeons.

"If you release a dove, it flies to the ground or a tree and gets eaten by a hawk, which sort of kills the moment," Luetger said.

She married into birding. Her husband raced pigeons as a hobby.

A white pigeon can make it home from as far as 200 miles away. Colored pigeons can navigate back from as much as 1,000 miles out.

Pigeon racing has existed in the United States since the 1800s, and prizes in national races run as high as $600,000. In modern races, times usually are tracked using satellite GPS systems and bar coded leg tags that are scanned on arrival.

The Bakersfield Racing Pigeon Club offers a few monetary prizes a year, but the vast majority of its races award a plaque and bragging rights.

"In racing, we use males because they're flying home to sex, really," said president Larry Heiser. "The second round of eggs they'll take the hen away and try to hide her, but after a few seasons you just show him the hen and you can take him anywhere. He'll be storming in in no time."

Homing pigeons must be bred, raised and trained because if you buy adults and release them, they'll fly back to where they grew up.

When pigeons are about three months old, trainers release them a short distance from home to help them learn the area. The distance is gradually increased as they get older.

"It's like having your own little football team," Heiser said. "You have your veterans and then there's the junior varsity. If I lose old birds, I move a yearling in."

It isn't well understood how homing pigeons find their way back. Biologists know they use the sun, but pigeons can navigate on overcast days, too, with a magnetic field sense that helps them identify north.

Their ability to determine where they are in strange territory is more of a mystery. It isn't likely visual landmarks or smells because scientists have conducted tests in which both sight and smell were obscured and the birds still made it home.

Noise could play a role. Pigeons can detect very low frequency sounds.

Just to play it safe, Bakersfield's White Dove Memory has a disclaimer printed on its business card: "We do not release our doves in rain, fog, high winds or at any time where we feel that our doves may be at risk."

Co-owner Katrina Chernabaeff and her husband started their business last year after a friend introduced them to birding.

"I just thought they were beautiful," she said.

Chernabaeff got her pigeons from a breeder from Oregon who was in Hilmar for a pigeon race.

"You can buy them through the mail, but I just think that's mean," she said.

White Dove Memory has about 66 birds, not all of which can be used for special events. The originals would set off for Oregon, of course. Others are still being trained.

The cost to release "doves" at an event starts at about $100. It goes up from there depending on the number of birds you want and the distance from the home loft.

"It's not something you're going to make a killing on, I don't think, but if you do it right, it's just majestic. I love when they swoop down and fly around, especially on a clear day."

Richard Woody, president of Golden Valley Memorial Care, said the recession has taken its toll on bird releases at funerals, but there's still demand for it.

"I know one family did balloons to save money," he said. "Families are making sacrifices in this day and age, but it's a very nice tradition for those who can do it. The meaning of it is lovely."

At weddings, it's customary for a bride and groom to release one bird, each.

Funerals vary widely from a single bird to a flock, sometimes one for each year of the decedent's life, or one for each survivor to hold.

"It's funny because you go to a gangbanger funeral with these muscle-bound guys with tattoos and all that, and they're scared to hold the birds," Luetger said. "You should see them, all stiff."

Luetger likes to tell a little joke as she passes out birds, to lighten the somber mood.

"I promise they won't bite you, but I can't guarantee they won't go potty on you," she tells them.

After five years in the business, Luetger generally can get through a funeral without crying, although it took a while before she could listen to taps dry-eyed. She still sometimes loses it when a child has died.

"The veterans and the babies, those are the ones that get to you," Luetger said.

B.J.'s White Doves donates its services at funerals for soldiers, police and firefighters who die in the line of duty, and for ceremonies staged by non-profit organizations such as the March of Dimes.

When 79-year-old Lupe Valles was recently buried at Union Cemetery in Bakersfield, about a dozen birds soared over more than 100 friends and family members. As a group, the birds circled a couple of times to get their bearings, then flew purposefully into a vast, clear sky.

There was an audible cry of delight at the sight of them, and afterward Valles' son, Ruben Valles, said he was glad the birds were there.

"It was such a nice touch," he said. "They were beautiful as they few out, very impressive, and I think the symbolism was clear. We were hoping my mother's spirit went with them."