Michael McAndrews' doves add flair to celebrations and comfort mourners — and after they're released, the birds always return to his Des Moines home, ready for their next job.

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In 2011, Michael McAndrews went to 108 funerals, weddings and special events, including opening day of a fair. But mostly he went to funerals.

He went to memorials for family patriarchs and beloved co-workers, and he went to funerals that had a police presence for fear of gang trouble.

At each one, in a ceremony, McAndrews released white doves, which are actually homing pigeons. Then, as trained, the birds flew back to his home in Des Moines.

People hire McAndrews because the doves provide an emotional outlet, something hopeful to mourn a loved one. His minimum charge is $300.

“Otherwise, you’re at the grave site, and they lower the casket into the dark, cold ground. It leaves you with an empty feeling,” McAndrews says. “But I release the doves, and people are looking skyward, into the heavens.”

McAndrews is 65, and you could say he’s finally living out his childhood dream after a career running a photo studio.

McAndrews has 100 white doves that will return home even if released from such a distance as the Canadian border, or south by Portland, or as far east as Snoqualmie Pass — “they don’t really like to fly over mountains.”

For centuries, doves have been a peace symbol, with paintings depicting a dove holding an olive branch. In the Bible, Noah used a dove from his Ark to see if the bird could find land from receding waters.

In the U.S., dove releases have become popular in the last dozen or so years, according to the National White Dove Release Society. The group says it has 75 member-businesses nationwide, and that several hundred “mom-and-pop” operations do releases on a part-time basis.

McAndrews’ love for doves — and he does get emotional when talking about them, from their soothing cooing to how they mate for life — began when he was 9.

Attending Holy Rosary School in West Seattle, he happened to pick up the April 1947 issue of National Geographic that carried a story called “The Flying Telegraph.”

The story told how in World War II, homing pigeons saved the lives of thousands of Allied soldiers.

“I kept reading that article over and over again. I was just fascinated by these little birds, doing all that they did in precarious conditions, while being shot at,” says McAndrews.

One example was a pigeon named “Jungle Joe” that flew 225 miles “through hawk-infested country and over lofty mountains” to deliver vital information from Allied soldiers about Japanese positions.

McAndrews talked his dad into getting him a baby homing pigeon. They named the bird Spook, as it looked ghostly because it hadn’t yet grown feathers. McAndrews fed it with an eyedropper.

“He stayed with me in my bedroom. He’d sit on my shoulder, and he’d wait for me to get home from school,” remembers McAndrews.

At school, says McAndrews, “I was talking about the birds so much the other kids would call me ‘bird brain.’ “

In his adult years, McAndrews put aside his hobby to work at a number of jobs, finally starting a portrait-photography business. After a divorce and the shutdown of the photo business, he decided to make his old passion a business.

There have been numerous studies on how homing pigeons figure out how to get home.

They likely use a number of cues. They navigate by smell, based on the winds around their home. They navigate by using visual landscapes. They use the sun as a compass. They navigate using the Earth’s magnetic field. In fact, one study found small deposits of the mineral magnetite in two regions of the pigeon’s head.

McAndrews seldom has had pigeons get lost and not make it back home.

When they’re babies, McAndrews has lofts set up so the doves can go on a platform outside, behind wire mesh, and look around. That view of their surroundings and where they are perched imprints on them that this is their home.

Hawks and falcons are the biggest threats to the doves.

On a recent afternoon, on a training run, McAndrews watches the sky as the doves circle above their lofts and a red-tailed hawk cruises near them.

“I don’t mind him at all,” McAndrews says. “My guys can out fly him. He knows it, they know it. He keeps them in shape.”

Still, McAndrews figures he loses about 40 doves a year to swooping predators.

Luckily, doves are breeding machines. McAndrews practices birth control by swapping a real egg laid by a dove with a plastic one. After about 20 days, he says, the doves (the male and female alternate sitting on the egg, with the male taking the day shift) figure out nothing will hatch and walk away.

Oh, the stories he has about the events for which he’s hired.

A few years ago, McAndrews says, he showed up at one cemetery in Kent and couldn’t help but notice “so many stretch limos.” The cemetery management said the police told them to lock the gates once the final car in the procession arrived, apparently to contain any potential problems.

McAndrews says the management told him undercover police were there.

“You can tell they’re undercover by their long trench coats, and there they are standing by a tree, and you can see that they’re holding a gun,” he says.

And McAndrews says he couldn’t help but notice how some of the mourners were dressed.

“There was a guy dressed in a pink, three-piece suit, pink hat, pink shoes. There were a bunch of young women wearing these baggy T-shirts that said ‘Pimps forever,’ ” he remembers.

The man paying for the dove release, says McAndrews, “reached into his jeans pocket and took out a huge wad of money, all $100 bills that he peeled off.”

McAndrews says he has released doves at six to eight “gangbanger” funerals.

“Mentally I’m a little uncomfortable,” he says about working such events, “but they’re quite nice to me, very polite. I can see these tough-looking guys, tears in their eyes.”

The stories continue.

There was the funeral for an 88-year-old man, in which McAndrews handed the “spirit” dove to his elderly widow.

In a typical, $300 ceremony, McAndrews brings 13 doves in baskets — the spirit dove that flies off first, and the dozen that follow. Each additional 10 birds cost $100.

McAndrews says the widow released the bird, which flew off for about 10 feet, and then something strange happened.

“The dove turned around, flew back to the woman, crawled up to her, and started kissing her, you know, little pecks, on her lips. It did that for 15 or 20 seconds and then flew off,” he remembers.

The couple was originally from Tonga in the South Pacific, and after the ceremony, the widow spoke in her native language about the dove kisses and a relative translated.

“She said that her husband was speaking to her, telling her, ‘Stay here, take care of the grandchildren, then we’ll meet at the gates,’ ” McAndrews says.

One of his most recent dove releases was at Lutheran Church of the Cross in Kent.

The co-workers at the beauty salon where 64-year-old Linda Multanen worked had all chipped in to pay for a dove release at her memorial after her death from cancer. They decided on 65 doves: the spirit bird and one dove for each year of Multanen’s life.

In the parking lot, Kathy Voutilainen, owner of SalonWorks and TanWorks in Kent, releases the spirit bird and takes it in stride when the dove leaves a little present on the palm of her hand. The others open the five white baskets holding the doves.

Voutilainen watches the doves fly off and circle the parking lot as they get their bearings.

“Isn’t that awesome. They’re a little confused, like all of us,” she says.

By the time McAndrews returns home from the ceremony, the doves are waiting for him.

News researcher David Turim contributed to this report.

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com