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Pope Francis looks at two children as they free doves during the Angelus prayer he celebrated from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014.

Pope Francis and two children release doves from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter's Square.

PHOTOGRAPH BY GREGORIO BORGIA, AP  

Mel White

for National Geographic

Published January 27, 2014

The irony was too much: When Pope Francis and two children released two white "peace doves" at the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City on Sunday, the doves were immediately attacked by other birds, losing feathers and being driven away as a huge crowd watched.

Thus, tens of thousands of Tweets and Facebook posts were launched, some of which used words such as "demonic," "omen," and "apocalypse"—and inevitably, of course, referring to "angry birds." What really happened there?

A photo of a crow attacking a dove.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GREGORIO BORGIA, AP

Why did the crow and the gull attack the doves? Because the doves were white. Thousands of pigeons (relatives of doves) live in Rome, as in most cities. They range in color from grayish to brownish to blackish and everything in between. Many other species of birds live in Rome as well, but none are pure white. So if you're an aggressive, badass bird (as gulls and crows tend to be), what's going to draw your attention? The pure-white bird. What's going to be the target of your aggression? The pure-white bird. There's a reason that albino birds (and other animals born without any color pigment) generally don't live long in the wild: They're easily seen, they can't hide, and predators single them out for attack.

What are "peace doves"? Doves have been a symbol of peace for thousands of years, in part because of the biblical story of the ark, in which a dove brought an olive branch to Noah, showing that dry land was near and the terrible flood would soon be over. Christianity, especially, adopted the dove as a religious icon.

Are doves really peaceful? Not particularly. They have weak feet and small bills and mostly mind their own business, walking around eating seeds and the occasional tiny bug. But they're just as likely to fight each other over territory (with lots of wing-slapping) as any other species. I once saw a mourning dove chase a blue jay away from a bird feeder. No wimpy bird gets the best of a blue jay.

Why were these doves white? Because white symbolizes peace, purity, serenity, and other good stuff. But here's the thing: There are no pure-white doves in the natural world. The ones that were released were the result of hundreds of years of domestication and breeding, creating these freakishly white birds for use as pets, and for release at weddings and other ceremonies.

A photo of a crow and sea gull attacking a dove.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GREGORIO BORGIA, AP

What were the birds that attacked the peace doves? One was a hooded crow, and the other was a yellow-legged gull. Both are very common birds in Europe. The former is related to the American crow, while the latter is related to the herring gull that's so familiar on seashores and at garbage dumps. The crow and the gull are both omnivorous, which means they eat anything from discarded French fries on a parking lot to nestlings stolen from other birds' nests and carrion on a roadside. And both are bold birds well adapted to surviving around people—like, say, in Rome.

A photo of a crow attacking a dove.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GREGORIO BORGIA, AP

So this wasn't a sign of the Apocalypse? Hey, I write about nature, not theology. But if I had to bet on whether this is the End of Times or just a couple of predatory birds doing what they do naturally, I'd choose the second as more likely.

164 comments
Xwpis Onoma
Xwpis Onoma

Your theory that they were attacked because of their (white) color is weak, if not laughable.


The Pope releases pigeons very often but this has never happened before. And what are the chances of these two doves being attacked almost immediately and so ferociously by two other different birds, a seagull and a raven.


Rome is not located near sea water and the raven should have come from far enough, i.e. a near by forest. What happened can only be explained as "Divine Intervention" because of the things that took place, earlier, in Vatican between the Pope and his esteemed visitors. Look it up, you will see what I mean.


And by the way, these doves are not white because they are albinos. They are simply a special breed of ...well, white doves. And by the way, complete albinism in birds is extremely rare. Usually, other pigments co-exist on the bird plumage, with white being the dominant one.


Birds with complete albinism are not really more vunerable only because they can't hide as easily. It's because albinism affects their vision as well, and to make things worse, albinism, also makes for very brittle wing and tail feathers. So a complete albino bird is essentially unable to hide, see well and fly away from its predators.


This was clearly not the case with these doves.


Please consult your sources BEFORE publicizing inaccurate information.

Jeremy Bowen
Jeremy Bowen

Sea Gulls are omnivorous?   I tried to share some onions from my burger one time... it turned it's nose up at me.  Maybe they are just selective omnivores, just like me :-)

Jerome Artis
Jerome Artis

They should have tweeted themselves as a white messiah, a proven tactic !

ellen bower
ellen bower

Wow. It is interesting, our human nature.

If I were to see a sign in this it would not be a "bad omen" but a triumph in good over evil in the fact that the birds escaped and were not destroyed. (ITA with let's get rid of dove releases) 

Same with the lightning strike. If I were forced to state a supernatural cause, I would say that the devil was pissed off and showing his displeasure. It is just interesting how we can tweak our positive or negative attitudes to make events mirror those attitudes.

J. Mcginnis
J. Mcginnis

   Hmm. Ominous indeed.  Maybe this is God's way of trying to warn us. I mean if someone just shouts "the pope is the anti-Christ prophecied about in Revelations" it would be written off as a quote "conspiracy theory". The pope extends his offer of peace in the form of a white dove. That hooded crow and yellow-legged gull sure wasn't fooled though!   

    This could be just a coincidence. Or not. Fact is, it happen! And with a little digging, we can trace all the innocent men, women, and children slaughtered from the middle ages to the renaissance era, all this when the popes ruled most of the kings of Europe(sometimes giving direct orders for these atrocities!). 


  Is nature now the only way God can  get through to us to remind us that we need to take another look at history? Just something to think about

                           Hope this helps

Rita Petita
Rita Petita

Yes it is a sign ... one of the many signs:

We people should change our behaviour to animals.

The legend of the first Francis could be an example.

Kurt Raulin
Kurt Raulin

The best defense is a good offense.  And the best way to ensure the peace is to prepare for war.  Clearly, the "peace doves" are more akin to civilians in the Vatican Bird Wars.  Perhaps the peace doves need protection from a warrior class.  Might I suggest that the Vatican consider bringing in some peregrine falcons that have been raised with peace doves, but not with seagulls, ravens or other dominant species?  A handful of falcons would clear out the seagulls and ravens in short order, and stick around to help control the overpopulation of pigeons, too.


Making Rome safe for peace doves!

Cyn D.
Cyn D.

It is a sign lol

Scott Paxon
Scott Paxon

Wait. Those birds saw the white, new it wasn't natural, and attacked? Really? Umbrella cockatoos are white. Snowy egrets are white. They might well be attacked in the wild, but more likely because some predator is hungry than because their color causes offense. I am pretty sure that animals don't make a distinction between a human-bred animal and a wild type. 

Also, you seemed to be talking about camouflage there, but this was not a natural setting. I think the white dove, black crow and white/gray gull are all pretty obvious in a square in the middle of Rome.

Here's what's much more likely. Two young healthy birds from aggressive species (badass individuals from badass species) had established multi-species territories in a very profitable area where people drop food. Unproven potential competitors showed up and were challenged. (Not "The target of the aggression: whitey.")

Gina Rush
Gina Rush

I'm disappointed that this article did not address the inhumanity and cruelty of released "captive bred, domestic" birds into a wild environment in which they have no chance of survival.  They have not been raised to fend for themselves, they do not have the "wild" survival instincts that feral pigeons possess.  National Animal Protection Agency, or ENPA, has warned that domesticated doves have trouble recognizing and fighting off attackers, so releasing them into the square makes them particularly vulnerable.  Mickacoo Pigeon and Dove Rescue, which specializes in feral and domestic pigeon and dove rescue, rescued countless birds in 2013 and says:

"Domestic breeds such as King Pigeons were bred for meat, and are sold at live poultry markets as “squab” at the age of just 4 weeks. These birds are poor flyers because they are bred to be large for maximum meat yield. They are also bred to be bright white because consumers prefer pink skin meat. They are completely unable to survive in the wild.

Well-intentioned but misguided people sometimes buy and set domestic King Pigeons free in parks all over the Bay Area. Their lifespan, unless rescued, is measured in days (if not hours). They are killed by hawks, gulls, ravens, owls, cats, dogs, raccoons and even cruel people. Though only a few survive being released, enough do get rescued that Bay Area animal shelters are full of them (as well as the occasional lost homing pigeon, injured racer or surrendered pet Fantail Pigeon)."

These are domesticated, captive bred birds...they are not trash to be tossed away on a whim!

Carmen Corrigan
Carmen Corrigan

Very interesting.  I mean about humans' reaction to a very natural event.  Go figure!

Tony Cooley
Tony Cooley

nice natural explanation for this event

Rafeeka Nisam
Rafeeka Nisam

that is awful,but  they don't know anything about black or white,they only think about food.

Patrick Davies
Patrick Davies

Well... that is both awful, funny and incredibly ironic to say the least.

mao jason
mao jason

When I think of doves, I think of the soap company, just saying...

Benny Casinobuff
Benny Casinobuff

I have read most all these comments and it makes my hair stand to see how many people in the world today are so clueless about so many things. Most people have been so brainwashed by the surrounding world that can't see what is really going on around them. Even if you are not religious, at the very least you should use plain logic and common sense to asses any situation. I am a religious person with scientific background so I use both, logic, science and also faith to explain things away. Taking this example of a bird attack, you all need to look at it from several points of view and use logic, common sense and science to explain it away. But you cannot exclude things such as prophecy because there is undeniable proof that many prophecies came true or were fulfilled. If any of you want to say something, then you should all do your research before you post comments without thinking it through and confirming with other sources.

That said, it is true that those poor does got attacked and perhaps died in the process. It is true that certain colors are much easier to spot than others and white may be more visible to seagulls than gray. But think about this. What are the chances that not one but both doves get attacked? What are the chances that they are attacked right away and not farther out? This happened simultaneously and right in front of a large crowd of spectators as if it was meant for everyone to see. Why did at least one of the doves fly some distance before being attacked? And why doe this sort of incident not happen every time doves are released? This practice is done frequently at different events, not just in Vatican. So if you are into prophecy, regardless of your beliefs. You may see it as a  sign. You can say it is a coincidence, or you can try to explain it away as these doves would be attacked in the wild anyway, and that may be fine, but to be attacked at the same time, right away and at this specific event with this specific Pope is too much of a coincidence. There are  also many other strange signs that happened already surrounding this Pope and the events related to the Catholic church. So we should look at these "signs" in the context of a larger picture. I will use just two examples that are probably most known. When Pope Benedict announced his resignation lightning struck St. Peter's Basilica, not once, but twice on that day. When Pope Francis was elected, the announcement was made exactly at 7:06 of local time which could also be written as 66 minutes after 6 or 6:66. We all know what 666 means from the Bible. Coincidence, perhaps. But maybe there is more to all these "coincidences". We will not know for sure and time will tell, but I think these are all little signs that the world should pay a little more attention to what is going on in Vatican. This, of course, does not mean that doves or other animals should be bread for the sole purpose of using them for ceremonies such as this one.

Elizabeth Young
Elizabeth Young

Thank you for telling a part of the story. These birds are domestic and they are selectively inbred to be white but they are homing pigeons, not doves. Many people believe that it is ok to release birds (especially homing pigeons) but the truth is that this sort of attack is common. Usually, these birds, victims of humans unwitting cruelty, are killed by predators including not only gulls and ravens but hawks, owls, raccoons, cats, dogs, rats, mean people and, if they dodge all that, they still face potential starvation. It's not fair nor natural to selectively inbreed, domesticate and tame creatures and then expect them to be safe in the wild. Please- don't release domestic birds. MickaCoo Pigeon & Dove Rescue was created to save birds like this and we can't even begin to keep up with the demand. We've rescued more than 600 in 6 years but, with more support and resources, we could have saved many more! Check out www.PigeonRescue.org and http://www.rescuereport.org/2012/05/never-buy-release-birds-please-share.html

Kevin B.
Kevin B.

Haha stupid humans arguing about birds and religion. Humans crack me up.

Evgeniy Maiorov
Evgeniy Maiorov

All people have a belief. The belief helps to live in our world. Don't forget about it. 

Vesna M.
Vesna M.

They should be all banned from the planet Earth. Most stupid religion and those losers who actually believe in all that crap. 

Bruce Almighty
Bruce Almighty

@J. Mcginnis  This may be in plausible in a distant galaxy were most people gave a flying fart about what a pope has to say. Here, were the great majority of RC's are uneducated third world people & the too stupid to shed entrenched tradition masquerading as spirituality, weelll,l your synopsis has no hope of fruition. 

Good story though, ..for those with nothing better to think of. 

mao jason
mao jason

@Scott Paxon I am pretty sure that those birds that are white are usually tough or live in snowy and cold places like the arctic. For an example a snowy owl is a tough bird that lives in the snowy places. After all not a lot of birds are white. They are usually colorful

Bruce Almighty
Bruce Almighty

Being a scientist doesn't automatically assign authority which is reserved for the few, wisdom, competence or even intelligence clearly not displayed here. It just means you know something about your particular field of study.

666 ...Rreeeally.

Shadow Gleason
Shadow Gleason

@Elizabeth Young So true, I am a bird breeder. This should show the world how evil the pope really is. To do this is just hate twards the birds. Their chance of surviving with out being tained was 0 %. The pope knew this too. I think this is why people put religion in with it. I to am am a beleiver in Jesus Christ. I can see the evil of this man who thinks he is somebody. He is not of good when he is killing doves on perpose knowing it. The crowd saw this, and nature, but the pope knew what would happen. How hateful is he to the people. What do they see now, the truth of who this man really is. The birds never had a chance with out being raised to be out doors. I own a white dove, love birds, and cockateils. I breed them for pets, not to kill. My birds are trained about wild life, taken in, and out side always. This is done to asure their safty, if one should want to leave, and get out. None ever try to leave even with the door wide open in front of them. All my birds are full flight too, never cut their wings. That is making them handcapped, takes from their health in many ways. I teach people this always. I too take hurt birds in, save them, put them back to the wild if I can. Many hit windows, that I have kept alive, flew back home when they were ready to leave. Lover of the bird world. The pope should be put in jail for animal killing. 

Bruce Almighty
Bruce Almighty

Actually.. These beliefs or untruths, delusions etc, as one might call them mainly serve to alienate humanity..

Bruce Wakelee
Bruce Wakelee

@Vesna M. Instead of criticizing a belief system you don't practice, why not search for something you can believe in (anything outside of yourself).  People are free to believe whatever they like, including you, so try to be more accepting and you will be happier.  You will find your truth and it won't be through opposition.

J. Mcginnis
J. Mcginnis

@Bruce Almighty @J. Mcginnis I did not say this because of prejudice against Roman Catholics. I know God has many people in the catholic church that are His(almost all of the renown Reformers, Luther, Calvin, Hus, Tyndale and more came out of the Catholic church). I am Not refering to the catholic people as the problem. 

     Revelations 13 clearly speak of the Church system as being corrupt. All of the Reformers  previously mentioned agreed on this translation of Revelations13 as the papacy being the beast whose deadly wound was healed(this happened in 1798 when Napoleon imprisoned the pope, bringing an end to the 1260 years of papal oppresion). Search their writings and read their life stories. 

     This is Not something I have thought up on my own. Now, are you aware that most of the high positions in america(why is it that most of our presidents, Bush included, seem to need to visit the vatican after they are inargulated?), six of the  justices on our Supreme Court are catholic? The papacy doesn't need a majority of rich Catholic people to gain control, he already has inserted many in key government positions. The solution to this? Only God can save us from this.

Bruce Almighty
Bruce Almighty

& that someone comes into yours to ease your ignorance

Lynn Thackwell
Lynn Thackwell

No bitterness, just living in an evidence based world, instead of one populated with imaginary cloud beings.

Bruce Almighty
Bruce Almighty

& what makes you think Vesna doesn't. "People are free to believe w......etc" is pure copout. Someone may believe that certain races should be exterminated, what then? Just an uneducated remark.

If something. Is wrong, it should be stopped eg. Smoking. The RC church doesn't have a right to exist by virtue of its systematic horrific crimes against humanity perpetrated unabated over a millennia, ipso facto. No excuses just because it survives due to tradition & the ignorance of man.

What are you telling me? By your definition the Nazi party should have a right to exist just because some people believe in it? Duh!

Lynn Thackwell
Lynn Thackwell

Better to try and understand the nature of reality by non-passionately examining the evidence instead of "searching" for something to believe in. Belief is just hope without reason.

.

Jack Paulden
Jack Paulden

@J. Mcginnis @Bruce Almighty  Waiting for a god to save us is a waste of good time.  The time is better served by Democracy saving us.  In other words, action by the people now to remove the Papal influence from our shores.

Xwpis Onoma
Xwpis Onoma

@Jack Paulden @J. Mcginnis @Bruce Almighty <-- Well, although I agree with your statement about "waiting for God to save us is a waste of good time" , I can't help but commenting that "putting all our eggs" in a basket called Democracy, is simply a recipe asking for trouble. Democracy as practiced today, is a failed system, sorry I do not have an alternative suggestion. 

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