“It seemed like a pastime of a fairy-tale New York that had long since disappeared. But, with a little research, I realized a thriving community of pigeon-keepers still existed in the city.”
To most of us, pigeons are pests: crumb scavengers, agents of disease, rats with wings. They eat trash, they crap on your arm, they flock in from nowhere at the drop of a hotdog.
But, if you look up, there exists an alternate world of pigeons in New York — a world of pedigreed birds who will never touch the ground. They swiftly flock in unison, and return to a clean coop with fresh food laid out for them –- mostly in the Spanish barrio in Harlem, the Bronx, and scattered neighborhoods in southern and eastern Brooklyn.
On a crisp autumn Sunday, I was standing on a roof in the South Bronx with a group of six middle-aged men, watching a soaring flock of pigeons. I craned my neck back and shielded the mid-morning sun from my eyes with my hand. Together we stared upward at the birds in the sky, while over two hundred pigeons in large steel coops gently cooed around us.
Edward Mendez, a man in his late 40s dressed in a Yankees cap and worn leather jacket, smoking a Marlboro Red with the filter picked out, turned to me and said, “Look straight up. Look aaalll the way up. Are you seeing them? I mean, are you really seeing them? I can tell you’re not really watching. They’re higher than the plane. Look, there’s like 20 of them – straight up. Fly, fly, fly, and boom! They’re hooking like that. You should be amazed, look at this.”
I could see them, but perhaps was not seeing them. Even to my untrained eye, it was a beautiful sight. I had watched the flock of pigeons start out as a tornado of wings on the roof. High above, they were looping, swooping, swirling, separating, and coming back together. They kept climbing towards the sun until they were just one dot, at which point Edward brought out his binoculars.
* * *
A couple of months earlier, my co-worker, Pedro, had introduced me to “pigeoning” with his stories about growing up in the South Bronx. Now in his early sixties, Pedro would occasionally ramble nostalgically about his days of flying birds as a youth. They were stories of battling flocks with his neighbors, earning good money with his racers, and sneaking onto roofs at night to steal pigeons by stuffing them into his shirt or pants to bring back to his own coop.
The sparkle in eye when he recounted his pigeon tales made me curious. I had learned a little about the sport through watching the Mike Tyson documentary and Jim Jarmusch’s film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. To me it seemed like a pastime of a fairy-tale New York that had long since disappeared. But, with a little research, I realized a thriving community of pigeon-keepers still existed in the city.
I met up with Edward and his younger brother, Pete, in their home neighborhood, Hunts Point, the Bronx. We climbed six flights of stairs to the rooftop where Pete keeps his birds. As we climbed, Pete’s curt words of wisdom and composed demeanor indicated that he was the serious sportsman of the family. He nonchalantly showed me his official pigeon racing club membership card and his key chain, from which dangled a small band identical to the ones I would soon see on his birds’ legs.
Neither man lived in the building, but Pete had an agreement with the building’s super –- he was allowed to keep his birds on the roof in exchange for help with the building’s maintenance.
Pete spends some time every day on this roof. He takes care of the pigeons by flying them, feeding them, and cleaning up after them. When asked what he loved most about his hobby, he replied without hesitation, “it keeps me under control. It keeps me occupied.”
All together, Pete had about 120 birds. They were kept in a large structure of coops, with a homemade industrial look. The thick black steel cages were arranged building-block fashion, with a roof of tarred metal. Each cage held a separate breed of pigeon, with colors, ranging from pure white to black, that matched the colors of the cages themselves.
Edward circled around the coops, listing off the different types: “That’s a pretty, pretty hook, and he’s got a beard. Then next to him you have the pepper head flight. He’s got dots on his head. Then we got the monkey head flights over here, grizzles, Canadians you got baldies, they’re all black, brown, blue whatever, and then they got a white head…”
Saving the best for last, he then showed me their prize show bird – a robust white Canadian Homer with hints of silver in his wings, “It’s like a Mercedes Benz, you got the Hondas, and you got the Chryslers, this here is a Mercedes Benz. Look at him, he’s dancing now, he’s showing off for the other pigeons, like, ‘I’m pretty, look, I’m the big man.’”
Four other men soon came up the stairs; they had all just come from the Sunday morning pigeon auction. Two were from Brooklyn; one was a flyer visiting from Florida who wanted to see what was happening in the New York scene.
Sugar, who shares the roof space with Pete, came bounding up the stairs first. He seemed to be on a post-auction high. He ambled around the roof, grey dreads swaying, boldly bragging about his birds. Sugar only kept black birds: “If I’m going to buy birds, I’m going to buy one kind, and they’re going to be black. Black homers, black Tiplets, black Danishes… as long as you’re black, you’re good. Even if you’re grey-black, or blue-black, you’re good,” he explained, carefully skirting any relationship to his racial identity.
At the auction, people buy and sell birds, and, perhaps more importantly, catch up with other pigeon flyers in the city. Some people go to church on Sunday mornings for the spiritual and social community of their congregation – the auction serves this purpose, with birds taking the place of God.
Edward explained the difference between street bird, or ‘clinkers,’ and the birds they kept on the roof: “They’re not street scavengers.” Then in terms he thought I would relate to, he added, “Did you ever see that show they did? Melrose Place or something like that? That’s what they are, they’re classy like that.”
You can recognize a clinker with one look into its eyes. Street birds have red or orange surrounding their pupils, whereas roof birds have clear or blue eyes. Though I don’t know the scientific reasoning behind the difference, these men told me that the color of their eyes is a result of the food that they eat. The trash that clinkers eat turns their eyes that toxic red, while well-fed roof birds retain a pure, clear blue.
Once a street bird, always a street bird, for, according to Edward, “you can’t stop them. You know, some of those birds is pretty too, but they’ll go back. You know what it is –- those street birds, they pick up bad habits. It’s like raising a kid — you got to raise them with discipline. The most important thing about pigeons is that they know what’s home. They’re smart, they’re very smart. These birds are family-oriented – you know, the mother and the father take care of their kid. They know how to take care of themselves. It’s just amazing how these pigeons learn to do these things.”
Standing on the edge of the roof with Pete, I gazed at a distant flock dancing in the sky. Scanning the neighborhood rooftops, Pete pointed out seven other coops, and said in the South Bronx alone there were probably close to forty.
The network of pigeon flyers in New York is tightly organized. Most coop-keepers are part of a club. Pete is part of the American Tippler Union (ATU), an affiliate of the national American Racing Pigeon Union (AU). The local clubs have democratically-elected presidents, treasurers and secretaries. They meet up at the auction, shows, and races.
A large draw of the hobby is competitive flock-flying. Two keepers fly their flocks at the same time, into each other. In the chaos of wings and beaks, some birds lose their way home and end up on the other keeper’s roof –- and whoever ends up with the most stragglers wins.
Edward described a casual neighborhood battle: “There was a guy who lived like two blocks away from me, when I flew my birds he would see, and when he flew his birds I would see. And sometimes we would just ‘blah!’ with each other. You know, he might take one of mine; I might take one of his. Or you can compete which one stays up in the air the longest. Or sometimes I would let out one flock, next thing you know I’ve got another one, and another one. That’s how you pigeon, oh maaaan.”
Edward proudly showed me his brother’s display of bands he had caught. When he catches someone else’s bird, he keeps the bird’s leg band as a trophy. The bands were hung on the side of one of his cages. The netted wire had turned into a sea of color. I noticed there was an abundance of green, and Edward agreed: “Yeah, the green ones aren’t doing so well.”
Different keepers have different return policies when they catch a bird. Edward explained his own philosophy: “I always let them go, it’s like a peace treaty. But, some places don’t go like that – ‘what’s yours is mine and what’s mine is yours.’ They catch them to keep them.”
The men will sometimes races their pigeons across boroughs, or even as far as New Jersey. Pigeons are smart. Regardless of where you let them go, they will find their way back to their home roof. Some keepers will paint their roof a distinct color to aid their returning birds, but this guidance isn’t necessary. Pete’s roof is concrete grey, much like the surrounding buildings, and the birds’ natural homing instincts bring them back time and again.
Edward remembers taking his pigeons on the bus all the way to Sunset Park in Brooklyn, to race them against other Bronx racers. The men let their birds out at the same time, start their watches, and scramble back to their own roofs in the Bronx to time when their birds come home. Distance between roofs is calculated and the first, second, and third birds to return to each roof are timed and recorded. Many times, these races involve a pooled cash prize for the winner.
Pigeon flying is a dying hobby in New York. The decline is due to a combination of tighter rooftop regulations and decreased interest. These aging men represent the demographic of flyers today. The men complain that kids aren’t interested in the hobby anymore; they’d rather watch TV, play on the computer, or run around in the neighborhood.
The men on the roof all noted how their hobby kept them off the streets when they were growing up – both figuratively and literally, as they spent most of their spare time on roofs, instead of getting into trouble in their neighborhood. When asked how long he had been flying pigeons, 58-year-old Edgar responded, “I’ve been flying since I was nine years old. That’s part of the reason I’m alive today.”
Leo, a flyer from Brooklyn and father of two laments, “Flying pigeons is a good hobby – it keeps you occupied, it keeps you out of trouble. You know, younger people should do this, maybe they’d stay off the streets.” Then he softened for a moment, and showed me a picture on his cell phone of his two-year-old daughter lovingly holding a pigeon.
Adding to the other barriers, the quality of birds available isn’t what it used to be, according to Edward: “Years ago, birds were more pure, you know. I guess there weren’t as many mixed breeds. And you know, you could let them fly, and you could go home, and they’d still be up there. They didn’t even want to come down.”
Edward flew Pete’s pigeons one last time for the day. After opening all the cages and chasing the birds onto the roof he took their long pole with a garbage bag flag. He gave a smirk and bounded across the roof waving the flag and yelling, “Blah! Blah!”
The pigeons fluttered off the roof and began to soar towards the sinking sun. Chaos turned into order, the flock formed, and the hundred or so bodies became one mass, shrinking as they flew farther away.
As we sat on the roof waiting for their return, Sugar’s wife called out, “Yeah baby, I’m still up here… On my way home… yeah baby, yeah.” He hung up the phone and shot me a sideways glance “Oh man, she knows how I get around birds.”
Edward spotted some returning birds, “There’s one flight, two flight, three flight. These are brothers, sisters, uncles, cousins. This is pretty. And look, they’re coming back. They are family, look, coming back home.”
Video by Colin Nusbaum.
Rumpus original art by Walter Green.