MACON, Ga. (AP) - They call him “The Bird Man,” and Jimmie Granville wears it like wings of honor. There aren’t many folks on the south side of Macon with more than three dozen doves living in their backyard.
They are as white as chauffeur’s gloves, and they reside in a 10x14 “lodge” he and his wife, Dell, made out of plywood. He bought the building supplies at Lowe’s, where he gets a veteran’s discount.
He spent a year in Vietnam in 1968, the year after he graduated from Ballard-Hudson High.
The doves are his livelihood, and the city allows him to keep up to 40. There’s not much of a precedent for dove keepers. It’s not like an ordinance requiring a kennel license for so many dogs or so many cats.
Jimmie is just fine with 40. It’s a biblical number, and he is an ordained minister. He keeps two doves in a cage in the kitchen. They never fly. He named them Romeo and Juliette. You can hear then cooing from anywhere inside the house.
He calls his line of work “Jimmie’s Dove Release.” He places his birds in baskets, loads them in the back of his black Hyundai hatchback, and drives them to funerals and weddings. He has taken them to preschools and ceremonies for Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day.
People find him mostly by word of mouth, but he does work closely with local funeral homes. He also purchased a few signs on the city bus benches. He considers it much more than a business.
“It’s a ministry,” he said.
At funerals, he usually takes four doves with him. Three are symbols of the Trinity - the Father, Son and Holy Spirit - and the fourth represents the deceased.
When released, they symbolically fly toward heaven. Often, a hymn is sung. “I’ll Fly Away” and “Sweet Beulah Land” are among the standards. Other times, bagpipes are played or poems read.
Sometimes, Jimmie will notice an infant’s obituary in the newspaper. He will show up at the service unannounced, and not expecting to be paid, to release a lone white dove.
“I think it helps take the sorrow away,” he said. “It takes away the hurt.”
Every morning, he lets them stretch their wings and fly, like a man walking his dogs. They usually will stick together, dipping and swooping in tight formation, as if they were tiny kites riding the wind on the same string.
On overcast days, it is more difficult to follow their flight when they blend into the backdrop of low-slung clouds. But, on blue-sky day, he can shield his eyes against the sun and swivel his neck as they circle above the neighborhoods along McEvoy and Williamson Road, across from Southwest High School. Sometimes, a hawk will chase them up from Rocky Creek. In the summer, they stay out longer, climbing higher to seek the cooler air currents.
Sometimes he loses sight of them.
“I have had people tell me: ‘I saw your birds flying out by the mall,’ ” he said.
They always find their way home. He trained the older birds, who in turn train the young. Homing doves can reportedly find their way back from distances of more than 500 miles. They are born with their own GPS. Jimmie has had them return from as far away as Savannah.
He didn’t know it at the time, but Jimmie was preparing himself for this long ago. He grew up the youngest of five children in south Macon. He was a three-sport athlete at Ballard-Hudson. He played football alongside Julius Adams, who went to the Super Bowl with the New England Patriots.
When he was 12, he and his friends rode bicycles to the Birdsey Flour Mill (now Con-Agra) on Lower Poplar Street. They would trap pigeons in wood crates, take them home and train them.
In Vietnam, he served with the 101st Airborne Division, known by a bird of a different feather - the Screaming Eagles. Jimmie returned after the war and became head of the duplicating department at Fort Valley State for nine years. He later took a job in distribution at Brown & Williamson, where he worked for 23 years until the plant closed in 2007.
Two other life-changing events happened that same year. He had heart surgery to repair four blocked arteries. And he attended the funeral of a friend at the Green Grove Baptist Church in Elko, where he witnessed his first dove release.
Inspired, he began researching the business of homing doves. After he received his income tax refund check, he ordered four birds. It cost him $175, plus another $45 for shipping.
They were eight weeks old, just babies, and he trained them to fly off and then return to the landing ramps. He later purchased 10 more, and trained them, too. He placed bands on their legs to identify them.
Over the years, he has lost a few a few birds to predators. None of them got lost, but a couple flew the coop. One dove, a real freebird, took off and never come back.
“Look at my money fly away,” he shrugged. That’s the risk you take with any business venture.
Jimmie is an associate pastor at the Ash Street Church of God in Christ, and has used references to doves in his Bible studies. In the Old Testament, the dove and olive branch were symbols of peace in the story of Noah’s ark. It is written in the Gospels that the Holy Spirit appeared in the form of a dove when the prophet John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the Jordan River.
There have been times when Jimmie has released four doves at a funeral, and someone can almost see the incarnation of the dearly departed on the wings of a dove.
“Oh, that’s just like him,” they will said. “Trying to get in front.”
Or, if a dove takes off in the opposite direction, “that’s just like her - always going the wrong way.”
Sometimes, people will see Jimmie’s doves sailing over the rooftops and stop to ask questions.
His birds are like children, he tells them, “part of the family.”
Information from: The Macon Telegraph, https://www.macontelegraph.com
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