- Associated Press - Saturday, February 20, 2016

ELBERTA, Ala. (AP) - One of Paula Murphy’s doves loves gospel music. Normally sedate, the pure white bird known as “Big Mama” dances and tries to sing, poking her head out of the cage when she hears her favorite music playing. As soon as it stops, she’s still again.

Big Mama is just one of 100 birds living at an expansive loft on Murphy’s property in Elberta. Through Murphy’s business, Whitewings of Gulfwinds, the trained rock doves are released at weddings and funerals throughout Mobile and Baldwin counties, east to Pensacola, Fla., and west to Moss Point and Pascagoula, Miss.

Sometimes the doves help celebrate other occasions, as well. On Lundi Gras, Murphy took two of her prettiest females in a cage to the law office of Alexander Shunarrah, at the corner of Conti and Conception streets in downtown Mobile, for a photo op with the Order of Doves mystic society’s king and queen, James Laura and Marley Goolsby, as well as Goolsby’s daughter, Bailey Jade.

Murphy helped the queen, with her elbow-length white gloves, properly hold the gentle creatures. “Squeeze that, and cuddle here,” she urged.

“I can feel its heart beating,” the queen said.

“They’re so used to being handled and being around people,” Murphy said. “Doves represent peace, love and tranquility, and that’s what this order is all about. It’s a very civic-minded, multicultural organization.”

The birds can’t be released at night, so later that evening, when the OOD had its ball at The Temple, the pair of doves were displayed in a white cage in their role as namesake birds for the organization.

Normally, though, the doves are released at an event - either singly or in groups. Murphy takes them to so many funerals, she said, that the birds get visibly excited when they hear the words “Ashes to ashes.” ”That cage is moving, and they’re raring to go,” she said.

When they fly out of their heart-shaped baskets, their wings extended, the birds circle overhead as they orient themselves. “Then they’re gone,” Murphy said of the doves - a breed of homing pigeon - which fly back to the loft in Elberta. Most of the time, they beat Murphy home.

And occasionally, she said, they’ll get lost. In her second year in business, she took 58 birds to a funeral in Bay Minette, and only 28 came home. “Instead of going south, they went north,” she said. “Four or five days later, they started coming in in dribs and drabs.” A year later, she went to the same cemetery to do a release, and a woman told her she was tired of the birds eating out of her birdfeeder. Apparently several of Murphy’s doves had taken up residence in a nearby neighborhood.

But for the most part, the doves return safely to the loft. “They come home,” she said. “These birds have the best of everything.”

Each dove is banded and has a computer chip so that they’re registered when they walk across an electronic pad back at the loft. “We know who came home, who was late and who was early,” Murphy said. “They’re so excited when they get back to their loft.”

‘I’ll fly away’

She stays busy every Saturday with funeral services. This past weekend, she took doves to three funerals in Baldwin County, two in Pensacola and seven in Mobile. At Gethsemane Cemetery on Mobile Street, she released three doves at two different grave sites.

After the mourners say prayers and place flowers on the casket, all eyes turn to Murphy, who stands behind a table with a white tablecloth, topped with a white wicker basket, decorative angels and silk flowers to match the casket spray. She or a funeral home representative then reads a passage from the Bible or a poem, copies of which are presented to the family along with a laminated keepsake that includes a feather from one of the doves that fly that day.

On Saturday, as Murphy opened the basket and let three birds fly skyward, Benard Lambert Jr., a funeral attendant for Reese Funeral Home of Prichard, sang a beautiful a capella version of “I’ll Fly Away.” The white birds flapped their wings and, with a whoosh, swept up into the sky and circled in the cloudless sky as the mourners collectively let out an “Ohhh,” with many taking photos to capture the moment.

The three doves represent the Holy Trinity: “the father, son and Holy Spirit taking the soul to heaven,” she said - giving the families peace. And Murphy receives a blessing, too.

“What gives me the most peace is that people walk away from the graveside talking about my birds,” she said. “It distracts them from the sadness of the moment. People aren’t walking away crying. They take the peace of the birds flying away.”

Sure enough, after both funerals at Gethsemane, several people stopped by to ask Murphy questions about the birds. They all expressed amazement that the small white birds would fly all the way home to Elberta - but Murphy assured them they would. “They have an internal GPS,” she said. “They know by the earth’s gravity where they are.

“In the summertime, when I’m sitting in traffic on the Bayway, I’ll see them flying across and wish I had wings.”

In recent years, doves have been released at several notable funerals, including those of state Rep. Yvonne Kennedy, Hiawayi Robinson, Prichard barber Broderick Burden, Bay City Brass Band tuba player Marcus Johnson and Mobile Police Officer Steven Green.

Murphy, whose dad was a police officer in Jefferson Parish, La., and whose great-uncle was chief of police in Gretna, La., has a special place in her heart for police officers. Each year, she releases doves as part of the 9/11 memorial event at Mobile Memorial Gardens cemetery and the Tunnel to Towers run. She doesn’t charge to release doves at funerals of men or women killed in the line of duty, or of babies.

A native of New Orleans whose mother never missed a Mardi Gras parade, Murphy used to raise German short-haired pointers. She bought quail to train the dogs for hunting - until a hunter friend told her about pigeons. “You can fold its head under its wing and stick it in a bush and it won’t leave until the dog comes along,” she said. “Then it will fly home, and you can use it over and over again.”

Soon, her husband, Daniel, bought a few pigeons, started racing them and won $25,000. He used the winnings to build a spectacular loft for his wife’s doves. Although he doesn’t race birds anymore, now he’s “the muscle behind the operation,” she said. In addition to training them to fly home from up to 100 miles away, the birds’ care includes special baths that make them “nice and white” and fresh-smelling.

She even has a business partner in Mobile, Hollis Sylvester, whose loft isn’t far from Gethsemane Cemetery. “I couldn’t do it without him,” she said.

Murphy, meanwhile, has become known wherever she goes as “the bird lady,” and she enjoys her nickname. “I love bringing peace to families,” she said. “It comes back to me tenfold.”

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