A Stock Visual Metaphor: when something significant happens, expect to see birds flying off, especially white ones, especially pigeons (biologically the same thing as doves). These birds are likely to suffer from Perpetual Molt. This is Truth in Television as flocks of trained pigeons are sometimes incorporated into ceremonies such as weddings and flag retreats. And if the action involved movement, it might startle any nearby birds into flight.
Frequently subverted; not to be confused with the Bat Scare, in which flying creatures are symbolic of abandonment if anything.
Similar to That Poor Cat and its automotive equivalent, That Poor Car.
When Julia dies, the doves go flying. In slow motion, no less! For some reason, the doves stayed still through the running gunfight until Julia gets hit.
The frequent flapping and squawking of Vicious' pet bird during the Cathedral fight scene, and the dove flyby over Spike's dead body.
Spoofed in the FLCL episode "Burabure" ("Brittle Bullet"). Naota and his grandfather are watching a pastiche of John Woo movies where a melodramatic death scene ("Brother! I'm a runaway bullet train after all!" "Brother! Don't you die on me now!") is interrupted when the non-dying character is overwhelmed by a flock of Disturbed Doves. (For those who didn't get the joke, the dub adds the line "What are all these pigeons doing in here?") The doves then fly out of the TV set after Kamon is sent crashing into the room and breaks the TV.
It happens in the anime episodes based on that storyline as well.
Blue Drop anime does this a lot, too, except that it's mostly seabirds rather than doves.
One of the signature poses of Golgo13 has him standing in a field of doves taking flight.
In the beginning of Blue Exorcist, Rin is standing in the park with mutilated pigeons at his feet as other pigeons fly right past his face and into the morning sky. The dead pigeons were not his fault, but he had just beaten up the guys who did and drove them away.
The climactic scenes of the first two Patlabor movies feature large flocks of seagulls.
Maison Ikkoku Episode 20: Kyoto denies feeling lonely while Godai is away at his hometown for New Years, and he keeps delaying his return. Then she meets Kozue (interesting how the two women in the Love Triangle get along so well) and they start talking about Godai, and how he hasn't come back yet. Kozue then says "I'm lonely". A moment to take in Kyoko's reaction- and the suddenly a bunch of pigeons take flight (and they watch them go, possibly combining this with the bird of lost love?) First time through it seems a little off, but looking back that was a very important moment when Kyoko realizes that she is lonely, and that Godai has become an important part of her life (even if it's not romantic).
RahXephon has a minor example in the first episode with "Reika" surrounded by pigeons. This in turn recreates a scene with Haruka surrounded by seagulls.
In Oniisama e..., Nanako tells Fukiko in a church about her intention to leave the Sorority. As if flying doves weren't enough, one dove CRASHES THROUGH A STAINED GLASS WINDOW.
Ouran High School Host Club in the beginning of the first episode. Haruhi walks down the school hallway and she passes a huge window while a flock of doves fly by. At the time she was thinking about her late mother. This is also her first day at Ouran and not long before she stumbles into the Host Club, an event that changes her life (and kicks off the rest of the series).
Almost every episode of Mitsudomoe includes a scene where someone screams, cut to a picture of their house and a bunch of crows flying away.
John Woo is in love with this trope, as it's been a trademark of his since The Killer, where they featured strongly during the siege at the church in the finale. By the time Mission: Impossible 2 was released, it appeared as though Woo had married this trope and fathered a dozen of its babies. It seems that this trope will even appear in the anime movie Appleseed Ex Machina he is producing.
And indeed it does. In fact, the doves are even slightly relevant to the plot of Ex Machina, since they are not actually real birds but rather radio re-transmitters disguised as such by the villain. Come think of it, it might have even been a twisted meta-Red Herring: the viewers are expected to know what doves mean in John Woo movies already and to assume that this is also the case here, failing to connect the dots until The Reveal. Evil.
And in Red Cliff he finally finds a way to make the symbolic doves plot important: they're bred by Zhuge Liang for use to deliver messages.
Variation in The Matrix Reloaded: Just before the "Burly Brawl" sequence, the Oracle had been feeding a flock of metaphoric ravens while talking with Neo. When she and Seraph leave, the ravens fly off in fright as Agent Smith approaches...
This is done in Hot Fuzz, to the point where it's actually brought up in the commentary track as a John Woo reference
Inverted in Final Destination 2, in which the flock of pigeons actually causes a character's death.
At the climax of Blade Runner the decaying upper stories of the Bradbury Building are full of doves (and pigeon poop) as Deckard and Roy Batty play hide-and-seek, and Roy famously holds one in his hand as he delivers the magnificent Tannhäuser Gate monologue, releasing it as he murmurs, "Time to die..." This may honestly be one of the earliest appearances of the trope as a Significant Emotional Moment reaction, as opposed to a Loud Noise reaction.
Subverted to a degree in Big Fat Liar when the main character jumps off a roof, it is shot in slow motion with doves flying in the background. The subversion is that the birds were placed there on purpose to do just that.
In Highlander, Ramirez is chatting with Heather when he feels the Kurgan approaching. He looks up and sees the birds flying away. Apparently, animals can tell if an evil immortal is on the way.
Used subtly in Mulholland Drive when Adam Kesher smashes the Castiglianis' limo with a golf club.
Mercilessly parodied in Scary Movie 2 with a game of wheelchair chicken...indoors.
Invoked in The Bourne Identity when Bourne is being tracked through tall grass by Clive Owen's Cold Sniper. Bourne lets off a shotgun, disturbing some very noisy birds, and runs for cover while the ensuing cacophony covers his footsteps.
In Penelope, when Penelope's mother discovers she's run away, and runs out the front door of the house calling after her, startled pigeons fly up in the background. They're more conspicuous in the trailer than in the actual film, though.
When the Japanese discover the British commandos bathing in The Bridge on the River Kwai, the first shot is followed by a cut to the bats woken up by the shot flying around above the canopy.
In the second Shrek movie, birds are strategically released when Fiona and Shrek are announced to the kingdom. However, when everyone realizes that they're ogres, the birds crash into a wall.
Reading—for the first time—Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, you're expecting the title to refer to one of the 9/11 plane crashes, because that would likely be relevant to the plot. Turns out to be 10-year-old narrator Oskar's description of the sudden departure of a flock of birds.
The Art of War gives this as one of the signs the enemy is on the move.
Live Action TV
On Psych during a Mexican Standoff, Shawn Spencer quips, "If this were a John Woo movie, doves would be flying everywhere right now."
Comedian Daniel Tosh once joked that if he was rich he'd rig doves to fly out whenever he made an entrance so people would think "Hey that must be John Woo's kid"
The Colbert Report lampoons a group of people claiming that birds taking off during their rally was a sign from God, saying something along the lines of "What are the odds that birds would take off the moment a hundred people started clapping at once?".
In Disney's The Swamp Fox series, using a gunshot to scare the birds near Marion's hideout into flight was a frequent way to summon the brigade. Could be real-life based, but unverified.
My Chemical Romance's song You Don't Know What They Do To Guys Like Us In Prison has a line with this trope:
I'm like a bullet through a flock of doves!
There's an obscure concert tee of the band Disturbed's Mascot walking through a murder of Disturbed Ravens.
The video of "I Will Be There" by Art of Dying does this at the end, but with crows.
Randy Orton's signature taunt, where he leans back slightly with his arms extended outward and upward (sorry, best description I could come up with) has been given thenickname of "the 'RELEASE THE DOVES!' pose".
One of the campaign scenarios in Command & Conquer: Generals: Zero Hour begins with a large flock of ravens sitting in a tree that overlooks a cliff. A slight noise can be heard in the distance, the birds fly away, and a motorcycle drives over the cliff. Followed by another. Followed by dozens.
Played for laughs in Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney with Valant Gramarye. He's a magician, so his shock sprite involves not only disturbed doves but disturbed rabbits and disturbed bunches of flowers to boot.
In the first game, flocks of doves mark points where it is safe to take a Leap of Faith, so you'll probably disturb them yourself as you jump.
You'll occasionally disturb flocks of pigeons in Deus Ex. They're rarely important, aside from alerting the odd guard. In a possible shout out to John Woo, it appears that roughly half of the world pigeon population resides in Hong Kong.
Condemned: Criminal Origins has this somewhat: dead birds started showing up during and before the course of the game, related to the evil jaw-thing at the end of the game.
Canabalt has the protagonist run through flocks of birds perched on the rooftops, which fly off as he passes.
The Demo Video for the Dual Pistols Powerset in City of Heroes featured Doves as part of it's finishing move: "Hail of Bullets". The Doves were a joke added in by the animator, and were removed before the Powerset's final release. (Mostly because he didn't want to deal with customizing the Doves.)
To the sadness of many a Dual Pistols player, and the relief of others who think the set is entirely too silly and flashy as it is.
Team Fortress 2: A painting at the Valve offices featuring Medic posing with his Badass Longcoat blowing in the wind, holding a Medigun, and surrounded by Disturbed Doves was leaked online, foreshadowing the "Meet the Medic" video that would be shown soon after. It turns out that the Medic keeps doves as pets in the video, hence their disturbed flights.
You can also get a taunt which allows you to perform this at any time you want. The item's description is this;
Remind those ungrateful bastards how valuable your Medic skills are by striking a heroic pose accompanied by an angelic choir, beams of divine light, and a flock of doves.
In Arcana Heart, as a Shout Out to John Woo movies, one of Petra's winning poses has her shoot one of her guns in the air, followed by a flock of doves flying past her.
Played straight in the series finale when the wildlife is driven off by fire.
Teen Titans played this straight when a flock of disturbed doves appeared during Robin and Red X's team up. It also doubles as the series' version of a "big John Woo tribute".
Parodied in Drawn Together, in that almost every time something even slightly dramatic happens, Disturbed Doves will fly outward from the area randomly. In one scene, after the housemates look at a dramatic scene with Disturbed Doves in the background, said Disturbed Doves immediately attack the housemates.
In the beginning of the first Made-for-TV Movie of Danny Phantom, ghost ravens (or it is raven ghosts?) caw and fly off as Vlad Plasmius awakens Pariah Dark.
12 Oz. Mouse does this during one of the shootout scenes. Actually, considering the show itself, that's actually quite normal.
In the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic episode "Show Stoppers", Scootaloo's high-speed leap over a tree branch sends a flock of birds scattering, framing her on either side in slow-motion.
The release of large numbers of doves, symbolising peace, is a traditional part of the opening ceremony of the modern Olympic Games.
In outdoor eating places it isn't uncommon to get a large flock of pigeons or (if you're near the beach) seagulls hanging around. Running through them tends to produces this effect. (Although you may find that some fly into your face, ruining any dramatic effect you were hoping for.)