TARPON SPRINGS — As bird handler Walt Postma gazed across Spring Bayou on Wednesday, he saw that preparations for Friday's Epiphany celebration were in full swing.
City workers bundled in thick coats used a leaf blower and mower to manicure the Craig Park lawn. Manatees used their flippers to bat at a semi-circle of dinghies that will hold 61 teen boys eager to dive into the bayou in search of a white cross and blessings from the Lord. A Tarpon Springs police diver dipped a thermometer into the bayou to check the water temperature.
Postma is part of the preparations, too. A cage in his red pickup truck held a nameless 2-year-old white homing pigeon that will be released over the bayou before Friday's cross dive to symbolize the Holy Spirit. He came to the bayou Wednesday to release the bird for a test run.
For two decades, Postma has volunteered one of his flock for the Greek Orthodox ceremony that celebrates the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan. Wednesday, he pointed at the sky as the bird and 17 of her companions circled several times to get their bearings, then scattered in different directions to begin the 12-mile flight back to Postma's New Port Richey home.
He said this year's bird, No. 42083, is "perfect" for the ceremony.
"I'll be using the same one from last year because it's one of my prettiest-looking hens, or females," said Postma, 62. "It just looks elegant: the appearance of the beak, eye and feathers. It's meant for Epiphany."
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Postma was a child when a Chicago uncle introduced him to homing pigeons — birds famous for carrying messages across enemy lines during World Wars I and II.
As a teen and adult, Postma continued raising his own pigeons as a hobby. He included their release in his and his son's weddings and his mother's funeral.
Postma isn't Greek, but he grew up in Tarpon Springs and owned an auto parts store one block from St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral for 32 years, so he has felt a part of the community.
He's provided the Epiphany dove — free of charge — each year since 1990 and on and off for several years before that. Postma wasn't always religious, but he said he's found spirituality through supplying the doves and watching Tarpon Springs' Epiphany celebration.
"I'm just proud to do it," said Postma, who contacts the church each year around Christmas to remind them of his standing offer.
"I'm not of the Greek (Orthodox) religion, but I do really respect them highly because ... they're very family-oriented," he said. "Same way with the pigeons. They mate for life, and it's one on one — the way it should be."
Homing pigeons belong to the same family as doves. The main difference is that doves are smaller, and, according to Postma, lack the sense of direction and strength to fly the same long distances as their slightly larger cousins.
Postma has raised as many as 50 at a time but currently houses 25 pigeons in wire cages attached to a shed on his rural Pasco property. As they mature, he trains them to find their way home by releasing them about five times a year from longer and longer distances. On a clear, sunny day, homing pigeons can navigate from hundreds of miles away.
Early on, Postma would visit downtown Tarpon Springs to watch the annual Epiphany celebrations. Now he watches news coverage of the event at his home, then steps outside to wait for his bird. He said the bird usually makes it home in a couple of hours, but it has taken as long as a day if it's windy or overcast.
Scientists aren't sure how homing pigeons find their way back to their birthplaces. Some say it may be smell, sight (recognizing landmarks or following highways), or ability to detect the earth's magnetic forces.
"It's instinct more than anything else," Postma said, adding that roughly 80 percent of the birds he releases come home. The birds fly higher than most predators, but they're vulnerable to power lines and hawks.
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At 7 a.m. Friday, Postma will drive to St. Nicholas to hand off the Epiphany dove to choir director Katie Faklis.
Sometimes the chosen dove bearers — usually a young woman from the church choir — are nervous they'll either crush the bird or let go too early. But he said Faklis does a "great job" prepping them and there's never been any need for him to rush over with a spare.
So far, only one Epiphany bird hasn't returned home. That was in 2009, when a dove bearer named the bird after her late grandmother. It's that incident and others that often make the Epiphany dove appear subject to supernatural forces.
Just before the 2000 celebration, for example, an animal ravaged Postma's cage and killed all the birds except the pre-ordained Epiphany dove.
A few years later, the Epiphany dove flew from the dove bearer's hand and into a nearby palm tree, where it remained for the rest of the ceremony, Postma said. Some took it as a sign that the spirit of Father Tryphon Theophilopoulos, the longtime St. Nicholas priest who had recently died, was watching over the celebration.
"It's just a mystical thing," said Postma.
Keyonna Summers can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153.