Those "doves" released at weddings aren't doves at all, but white racing homing pigeons.
Pigeons and doves belong to the same family, say those who raise birds in the Top of Utah. Homing pigeons are able to travel great distances back to their homes, whereas doves do not have that same homing instinct.
You may see true doves -- "love doves" or turtle doves -- on display in cages at weddings, says Daniel Hash of United Doves of Kaysville. "The only kind (of birds) that are ever released are trained white racing homing pigeons," he said.
Because pigeons frequently have a negative image as a nuisance bird, Hash says the birds used in ceremonial releases are popularly referred to by their official name: "rock doves."
How far they can these birds fly and do they ever get lost? Here are some interesting facts about white racing homing pigeons.
* Home port: Birds are raised and kept in a loft that they identify as home because that's where their food and mates are, says Roger Miller, who has about 40 rock doves as the owner of Ogden's Wasatch White Dove Release.
"We always feed them after they fly," adds Hash, who keeps about 500 birds in a Willard loft. Some are used for ceremonial releases and others for pigeon racing.
* Training: The natural homing instinct of the pigeons can be improved through training. Kris Neville, owner of Unforgettable Doves of Hooper, says you start by taking the birds a half-mile from home, then gradually increasing the distance to 1 mile, 2 miles, 5 miles and so on.
Hash says, "It takes six to eight months to train them to come home consistently."
* How do they do it? No one knows exactly how the birds navigate their way home, but researchers have studied various theories including the birds' ability to detect the Earth's magnetic field, to sense atmospheric odors or sound frequencies, and to recognize visual landmarks.
* Staying put: Once oriented to their home loft, the birds could be thrown off if they are moved. Hash, who used to live in Arkansas, says he has birds he owned in that state that he won't fly in Utah. "If I tried to release them, they would try to make it back to Arkansas," he says.
* Distances traveled: Rock doves can be trained to fly hundreds of miles; birds trained for pigeon racing have logged distances greater than 1,000 miles. Miller, based in Ogden, says, "I can go as far as Davis County -- as far as Lagoon -- and as far north as Willard."
"I did a wedding all the way up in Rock Springs, Wyo., and they came back," says Josh Cypers, who operates an Ogden dove release.
Hash says the birds can fly at speeds up to 55 miles per hour, so the return trip home doesn't take long.
* Flying conditions: The birds are released during daytime hours so they can navigate; owners won't release them if temperatures are too hot -- the thin air makes it hard to fly -- or if there's a danger of storms.
Miller recalls a wedding in Davis County when a microburst moved in and he had to tell the wedding party, "I'm sorry, I'll give you your money back right now, but I'm not going to fly my birds; basically it will be a suicide mission."
* Airborne dangers: Occasionally, birds do get lost and don't return home, or they fall prey to accidents like running into power lines, Miller says. Homing pigeons can be killed by predators such as hawks and falcons, Hash says.
As for any "dangers" to folks watching a dove release from below, the rock doves aren't fed until after they fly, so the risk of bird droppings is low, the experts say. Even so, Hash says he understands if folks have questions about that, quipping, "Some of those wedding dresses are pretty expensive."
* By the numbers: Folks may opt to release a single dove or a flock of 30 or more. Costs for the bird releases average around $200, with some owners setting a flat fee and others charging per dove. Cypers, for example, charges $25 per bird for the first six birds and $15 per bird after that.
* A word of caution: Miller says he's heard of folks who want to save money with a do-it-yourself dove release, so they simply buy some white birds and let them go. "They don't care if they come back," he says.
* Lasting legacy. Homing pigeons have been used throughout history to relay messages, from the Olympics in ancient Greece to the battlefields of World War II. They've collected smog data in big cities or relayed photos taken on river-rafting trips back to the company headquarters to be printed before the rafters return from their trip.
Hash, who has raised the birds since he was a child, says, "I'm just fascinated by how much they've played a role in civilization, from ancient times to modern times."