The Washington Post

Releasing doves is like ringing dinner bell

Two white doves intended to symbolize peace were attacked by a crow and a seagull as they flew outside the Vatican. (

It looked like a scene from some creepy horror movie such as “The Omen” — or a comedy skit.

Pope Francis, a man of God, on Sunday nudged a boy and girl to release two white doves into St. Peter’s Square following a holy prayer. And then — boom — the pretty birds of peace were attacked by a crow and a gull.

What could it all mean? Was it the devil’s work?

Not likely, the experts say. When the pope let those birds go Sunday, he was asking for trouble. In a place filled with pigeons and other fat targets for birds of prey, it was like tossing out sausages with wings.

“Birds are wild animals. Some of them are carnivorous,” said Ellen Paul, executive director of the Ornithological Council, based in the District. “Why does a lion eat another animal? They are not the devil.”

Paul has never been to St. Peter’s Square, but she has a theory. “My guess is that in a big open plaza like that, there are a lot of pigeons all the time, and I’m thinking that birds hang out there where there’s a good food source.”

And doves are yummy. Especially doves bred in captivity with no idea that other winged creatures are waiting to tear them apart.

The attackers — a hooded crow, which was mostly silver with a black head and wings, and a yellow-legged gull — are opportunistic feeders that eat almost anything.

Lacking speed and talons, they’re not well equipped to go after flying prey, which is probably why the doves got away.

“Crows are wannabe predators,” said Kevin McGowan, an ornithologist for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which studies birds. “They eat as much meat as they can, but they can’t [kill] anything with their feet. Gulls are pretty much the same. They have ducks’ feet for God’s sake.”

What gasping onlookers saw in the square was a flying circus, two incompetent predators attacking two clueless doves and coming up short.

“Birds,” Mike Parr, a vice president at the American Bird Conservancy said with a sigh, “sometimes their eyes are too big for their stomachs. Maybe they thought they might be able to capture them.”

There was no maybe in it, said Geoff LeBaron, who directs the 114-year-old Christmas count, a bird census, for the National Audubon Society: “Whenever these doves are let out, they see it as an opportunity to get food.

“The doves are actually prey items. If it had been a hawk, they wouldn’t have gotten away. But it was worth a try, I guess.”

Maybe the predators had chicks to feed. Crows are among the most intelligent birds on Earth. Crows in New Caledonia near New Zealand have learned to use tools.

Yellow-legged gulls aren’t as smart, Parr said, but they learn quickly to stick around when people start throwing out food, sort of like children tossing french fries at Ocean City.

People are quick to judge things they don’t like, but what about things they do? That gorgeous white snowy owl spotted Wednesday in McPherson Square and Friday at The Washington Post downtown probably would have caught and eaten those doves.

Birders who watched the owl perched near 15th and L streets NW noticed the telltale signs of pigeon remains in its liquid casting — the stuff that prey birds throw up if it can’t be digested.

“We saw it was a pigeon,” said Paul, who studied pictures taken from above the owl’s perch. Bones, basically. “Those things will get bound up in the gizzards, and the bird spits it up.”

This isn’t the first time doves released by the Vatican have been attacked. It also happened last year, when a sea gull went after a dove that eventually returned to where it had been released.

The Super Bowl and other big events at which doves are released also are hazardous to the doves’ health. Some are weak fliers and make a nice meal for the hawks and other birds of prey sitting around, waiting and watching.

Throwing doves into a mosh pit of prey animals is like leaving a puppy in a jungle, McGowan said. “It’s just symbolism. It’s not generally a good idea. There are people who would like to do away with this kind of thing.”

Which raises a question: Why does the pope repeatedly release doves into the mouths of birds of prey?

“That’s a good question,” LeBaron said, but he wouldn’t dare answer it. “I can’t address that one.”

Darryl Fears has worked at The Washington Post for more than a decade, mostly as a reporter on the National staff. He currently covers the environment, focusing on the Chesapeake Bay and issues affecting wildlife.

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