Homing in on Rappahannock

Mark Rhein hires out his doves for release at events such as weddings and memorial services. Photo by Kay Beatty.

From time to time, Rappahannock County residents who look to the sky might spot a group of snow-white doves heading toward Washington. They might assume the birds are just passing through, but they’re not. The doves belong to Mark and Liz Rhein, who added the cooing birds to their nine-acre Cornucopia Farm in Washington in 2001.

Formerly Southern California residents, the Rheins are businesspersons who became educators and farmers, and who moved to Rappahannock County in 1999 to experience rural farm life with their children.

“My two sons, daughter, wife and I brought hogs, sheep, goats, bees, chickens and guineas to the farm initially,” Rhein said. “But after I saw some doves at the state fair I thought a flock of doves would be a nice addition.” His wife agreed, so they built a loft and purchased 30 doves. The flock steadily grew to its current number of close to 150.

Maintaining healthy, happy doves proved to be much more expensive than they expected, so to defray costs the Rheins decided to utilize the bird’s homing skills by releasing them at events for a fee. Rhein advertised on the Web and got an immediate response. The business quickly grew to what he says is now an average of 200 releases per year. Rhein started with weddings and now does memorial services and other ceremonies.

“Pigeons and doves have an innate instinct that we don’t have,” Rhein explained. “They can feel where they are on the planet and in relation to home. Once I release them, they fly in circles to sense which way to go, and then head home.” Although experts don’t quite understand how this happens, most agree that it has something to do with the birds being able to use the Earth’s magnetic field as a compass.

“Most of our business is in Northern Virginia, but we also have local releases, which we like a lot,” Rhein said. “It’s a nice feeling to help our neighbors.”

On the off-chance it doesn’t find its way home, this chick will wear an identifying tag for the rest of its life. Photo by Kay Beatty.

Some of the public ceremonies Cornucopia Farm regularly release doves at are: Easter sunrise services at Arlington National Cemetery; memorial services for the Washington Council of Governments, which pays tribute to fallen police officers; Marine Corps marathons in D.C., Fredericksburg and Arlington; Relay for Life events in Warrenton; the Reston Multicultural Festival; and graduations at Northern Virginia high schools, including Millbrook and Heritage.

“Universally, doves symbolize peace, but the presence of doves means other things, too, depending on the occasion,” Rhein said. “For example, at memorial services, circling doves represent angels waiting to escort a spirit into heaven, and a single dove released by the deceased’s loved one represents the spirit.

Rhein releases about 12 or so doves a few minutes before the single dove is released. The doves circle until the lone dove joins them, then they all fly off toward home, disappearing from view.

“It’s a powerful thing that takes place,” Rhein said.

“At weddings, doves symbolize lifelong love, since doves mate for life,” he said. Usually for weddings, the bride and groom release a mated pair of doves during the ceremony, then Rhein releases about 20 more when the couple kisses at the end of the ceremony. The doves coast in air for a few minutes, then fly home to their loft at Cornucopia Farm.

“They can fly around 55 miles per hour, so they usually beat me home,” Rhein said. “Sometimes I can see them fly over my car as I’m driving.”

The Cornucopia Farm doves fly nonstop from their release spot to land on slatted windows on the large red loft that was custom made to serve their needs. The loft is divided into a number of sections that separate doves who are nesting, as well as doves with different homing skills.

“I call my less experienced doves ‘trainers’ and my seasoned doves ‘fliers,’ Rhein said. To train the birds, he takes the less experienced fliers to various locations in the county to let them find their way home. As they gain experience he moves them out farther and farther until he’s sure they can easily make the trip home from northern Virginia.

“I think some of my birds could get home from nearly anywhere,” he said. “But I don’t like to release them too far from home. I’m quite fond of them.”

The Rhein family and their clients are not the only ones smitten with the cooing birds. Several years ago, they discovered a blue racing pigeon cozily roosting with the fliers.

“Occasionally racing pigeons will stop here,” Rhein said. “I simply contact the owner (as indicated on the pigeon’s leg band), then take the pigeon to another location to fly home. But this particular pigeon kept coming back. The owner said if the pigeon was too stubborn to fly home, then he doesn’t want it.” The racing pigeon is now a permanent resident of Cornucopia Farm.

Also currently on the farm are horses, goats, guineas and chickens. It’s common to see the doves circling above the horses grazing in the field behind the loft, since Rhein frees his white friends daily to get exercise and enjoy the outdoors.

“I like to help them feel as free as possible,” Rhein said while gazing at them flying fancifully in the sky above Cornucopia Farm. “I never get tired of watching them. It’s a glorious sight.”

For more information about Cornucopia Farm’s dove releases, visit VirginiaDoves.com.