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AROUND TOWN

Flights of Fancy

March 31, 1995|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"I do," says the bride. "I do," echoes the groom. And, on cue, 100 snow-white doves arc overhead, flying in formation.

Their day's work is done.

They are Peninsula Snowbirds high-tailing it to Riverside, where Pat Evangelista will have set out their supper of mixed grains.

He knows exactly when to expect his flock. A Beverly Hills wedding? An hour and 28 minutes. A Malibu ceremony? Ninety minutes, with good tail winds.

Although they call themselves "ceremonial doves," his 900 birds are, in fact, homing pigeons, albeit blue-blooded ones. "All pigeons are doves," Evangelista explains, "but all doves are not pigeons."

Evangelista, 41, has been in the rent-a-dove business since 1985, supplying "wedding teams," "funeral teams" and other feathered teams for ceremonies from Ventura to San Diego counties.

In September, 1987, his Peninsula Snowbirds were among those released over the Coliseum during the pontiff's mass.

Even today, says Evangelista--a Catholic himself--"The Catholics want the birds that flew for the Pope."

They may have to settle for the offspring. Most of those older birds are now breeding stock. "If they were released, they'd fly back to San Pedro," which was home to the flock until Evangelista moved to rural Riverside two years ago.

It's a Sunday morning and the wedding team has no bookings, but that doesn't mean they'll sit about and preen. "They're just like marathon runners," Evangelista says. "If they're not in condition, they're not coming home."

He unlatches a door and out they soar, up, up, up, circling and circling in a tight flock. "See their heads dip down, right and left, to see where the loft is. They're getting a bird's-eye view of Mt. Baldy."

In about 90 minutes, he'll whistle. Feeding time. "I can call them out of the sky just like (snap of the fingers) that." Understand, these are not street pigeons. Or, as Evangelista puts it, "If I went out and caught a bird at Jack in the Box, he's not going to fly even two or three blocks."

These are racing pigeons. Although the white birds don't race--"Too valuable. They clothe and feed me"--they carry racing genes, having been bred with colored race stock, birds able to fly 1,000 miles nonstop.

With luck, the matchmaking produces a pure white chick for one of the wedding teams. Gently holding a Snowbird that flew for the Pope, Evangelista spreads one of its spotless wings. "This is what they like at weddings, the showiness."

The morning of a wedding booking, Evangelista places the pigeons in flower-decked wicker baskets for pickup by a bird handler. The birds will not have eaten. Wedding guests "don't have to wear hats," he mentions.

At the wedding's magical moment, the handler will open the baskets and out will fly the doves. But it's a little more complex than that. For one thing, Evangelista says, "Our handlers know to point the birds away from grandma in the front seat." The birds blast out, hellbent for home.

Timing is everything. No flapping of wings to drown out prayer. No pigeons flying into the faces of the wedding party. As for the video, from a wrong angle, Evangelista notes, those doves are going to look "just like little bullets" whizzing past.

A well-conditioned bird team may do five or six events in a day. Some clients have requested red, white and blue teams but, he says, "I won't dye my birds." He doesn't consider them circus performers.

In a good year, Evangelista may do more than 200 weddings and a few TV commercials (Geo was one). For $375 and up--depending on distance--the wedding couple or funeral party get up to 20 doves. Some brides and grooms also opt for a pair of doves in a presentation cage, one for her to release, one for him.

At funerals, a single dove may be released, after the team has flown heavenward, to symbolize the departed's soul going to heaven.

On the wall of Evangelista's home office is a huge map. Much as a general might plot a combat raid, he has marked distances, altitudes, jet streams, obstacles.

Three or four times a week, he trucks his birds to different areas--up to 80 miles from home--and releases them on training missions, starting the youngest birds out with a one-mile flight.

"Their brain is the size of a pea, but they can find their way home from hundreds of miles away--and get there faster than you can in your car, 70 miles per hour, say. Nobody knows how they guide."

Evangelista, who's also a master falconer and part-time longshoreman, grew up on a chicken farm in Redondo, raised a few pigeons as a kid and had an uncle who would loan out racing pigeons for those peace-themed '60s weddings.

Twenty years later, Evangelista simply refined the art, adding the funeral teams, the flowered baskets, the videos for brides-to-be. . . .

And, of course, that telephone pitch, "Yes, our birds flew for Pope John Paul II. . . ."

Reading the Stars

"O.J's a Cancer. Shapiro's a Libra and Judge Ito and Marcia Clark are Virgos. What we don't know is the jury."

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