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Wings of sorrow, celebration

A funeral director asked Don Brumfield several years ago if Brumfield would release his white birds at a burial service.

Brumfield had never heard of such a thing. But he didn't think it was a big deal. He would open a box and his homing pigeons - which look like white doves - would fly off into the sky.

"There were all these people there, who looked very sad. Everyone was crying. When I open the box and let the birds loose, everyone's mood just changes - just like that," he said, snapping his fingers. "It was amazing."

Brumfield, a retired Walt Disney World employee, brings his pigeons to weddings and birthday parties as well as to somber events such as the October memorial service for Mario Jenkins, a University of Central Florida police officer who was killed while working undercover at the Citrus Bowl. The birds soar overhead and then return to their roosts in Brumfield's back yard, often before he arrives home.

"Their mouths just opened and they were just amazed," Brumfield said. "That's why I do it, because it makes me feel good to see that."

Raising pigeons and using them to awe spectators at special events has become a growing trend. Since 1999, the American Racing Pigeon Union in Oklahoma City has seen almost a 12 percent increase in the number of pigeon fanciers in the United States. Brumfield is one of a half-dozen pigeon fanciers in Central Florida who release the white birds.

Wedding couples see the white birds as a symbol of purity. Mourners see them as souls flying to heaven.

"People love it," said Robert Bryant of Robert Bryant Funeral & Cremation Chapel in Orlando. "It's a release, a way of letting go, by seeing the bird fly off."

Michele Butler, an Orlando wedding coordinator, said white birds are used in about 25 percent of the 300 or so weddings her company, Just Marry, oversees a year. That's about three times the number of just a few years ago, she said.

"It's definitely a growing trend," she said. "It's something that's very impressive to see and then people want to use it at their own weddings."

But it's not just weddings and funerals.

Brumfield was once hired by new homeowners to release his birds at their house-blessing ceremony in Celebration.

"The birds didn't fly away like they were supposed to because it was raining," Brumfield said. "They just flew up on the roof and then sat there. Everyone was looking around, wondering if it was a bad omen."

Brumfield has more than 100 white pigeons in his backyard coops, but he used to take care of many more.

In 1984, Brumfield, a Disney security manager, was placed in charge of Disney's 450 homing pigeons. Under his care, the birds appeared in eight shows a day - including flying out from a under a replica of the Liberty Bell and from the top of Cinderella's castle. The birds would then head to their aviary home at the theme-park property.

But in 2002, Disney stopped releasing the birds after hawks began swooping in and devouring them at events. Now retired, Brumfield said he has never had any problems or complaints from animal lovers.