WASHINGTON, Va. — With frigid wind biting at Mark Rhein's hilltop farm on a recent morning, the quivering, cotton-white bird in his hand could be mistaken for a snowball.
Behind him, a bright red loft holds more than 200 white doves, their collective cooing creating a soothing rhythm.
He releases the bird, and then several more. They immediately go into formation, their white wings collecting interesting dark shadows as they turn against the unforgiving stone-gray sky. The group swoops up, does a quick, dramatic downturn and back up it goes.
After a short time, the birds returned to the landing boards on a custom-built loft, their home at the 9-acre Cornucopia Farm, established by Rhein and his wife, Liz, in 1999. In 2001, they began offering the dove releases, neither knowing how demand would grow for their symbolic birds — for the happiest and saddest of occasions. Their horse-boarding enterprise quickly took a back seat to birds.
The returning doves peck the cage wires, which only open to enter, and head back inside, rejoining the rest of the flock. This demonstration was just a little exercise; they return there when released at locations near the nation's capital and beyond.
The white doves, or rock doves, to be specific, are bred from white racing pigeon stock. They have a finely tuned homing instinct, each dove wearing a leg band that identifies its owner.
The Rheins started with 15 birds. They now have breeding stock; Rhein gently moves a female dove aside to show the eggs beneath her. Nearby, a 2-week-old has the least little bit of yellow baby fuzz, against pure white.
"They are much more athletic than other kinds of birds," says Rhein, who manages the dove business and is home schooling the couple's 10-year-old daughter. His wife is a principal at a school in Fairfax County. Although the couple's sons, 18 and 24, have joined the military, the dove releases have been a family affair.
Cornucopia has come a long way since Rhein first saw the white birds at a state fair, got on the Internet and decided the doves would be beautiful asset to the farm. An 85-year-old World War II veteran, who was involved in pigeon racing, consulted him on the design of his first loft. During that war, racing pigeons — some of which fly as far as 300 miles — were a major way troops communicated.
For Rhein, however, the work is strictly ceremonial. Racing pigeons fly at speeds up to 100 mph, the doves, about 60 mph.
He has done five dove releases in one day — three weddings and two funerals.
Although the birds make it appear effortless, a lot of work has gone into their troupe-like air performance.
Though they are born with a homing instinct, Rhein still must train them. Trainees are collected in wicker boxes and taken a little further from the farm each day, until he is sure they know where to return. As long as they get home before he does, Rhein says he keeps taking them further from the farm for release.
Following a release in Centreville, he watched as his birds passed him down the road at Massies Corner. By the time he was home, he says, smiling, most of the doves were back in the loft, minus a couple of stragglers.
His Web site, www.virginiadoves.com, contains testimonial after testimonial from happy brides and grooms about how the dove release enhanced their wedding festivities.
"Doves mate for life and are a symbol of peace and prosperity. If you see a dove on your wedding date, a happy home is assured," he recites his message to couples.
Despite the opulence of many of the weddings — one was held aboard a yacht — the funerals are the most meaningful to him, says Rhein.
He has done releases at Arlington National Cemetery for soldiers killed in Iraq, including one filmed by crews from HBO. He has also done sunrise services there.
In a way, says Rhein, it has become a sort of ministry. Prior to the dove releases, he delivers some words of hope to the family.
At funerals, several doves are released, followed by a single dove held by a family member. The single dove joins the circling flock, which ushers it on a symbolic final journey home.
"They find themselves saying goodbye to their loved one, kiss it [the dove] on the head and let it go," says Rhein. "It is a symbol of precious love, hope and that the spirit of God is there and they are finally letting go."
Seeing a spirit symbolically head toward the heavens is often more comforting to people than a last look down at a casket, says Rhein, who, although a deacon at his church, seems a little shy about the role he plays at these services.
"I've had numerous ministers come up to me and say we are in the same business," he says.
A dove release was held before a crowd of 7,000 at the funeral of Master Police Officer Michael E. Garbarino, of the Fairfax County Police Department, who was killed in the line of duty in 2006.
The most moving and largest, however, was a 180-dove release for slain Virginia Tech student Emily Jane Hilscher, who was gunned down during the massacre on campus in April. The Rappahannock County High School graduate was just 19 years old. The release was done during a memorial at the high school.
"The funerals are the most rewarding. It's so much more significant to help people heal," says Rhein.
The list and nature of requests, however, continues to grow.
He has done high school graduations, the Marine Corps marathon and is heading to Potomac, Md., in April for a bar mitzvah.
Although the training is arduous, the end result is pure beauty. The more releases Rhein does, however, the more important the message of these beautiful white birds becomes.
"This is not a bird business," he says. "It's all about the people."
For more information on Cornucopia Farm's white dove releases, call 675-2336, e-mail email@example.com, or go online to www.virginiadoves.com.
*Contact Natalie Austin at firstname.lastname@example.org