A tornado of pigeons flies above their DeKalb Avenue coop. Pigeon flying can trace its roots back to medieval Italy, and still enjoys popularity throughout Brooklyn. — Photos by Paul Cox
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Any resident of Bushwick who occasionally looks upwards will have noticed that our pigeons are not like others. Wheeling in tight formation, a flock of dozens or even hundreds of birds circles the rooftops on a summer’s day, and a view of the horizon takes in other avian whirlwinds scattered over the neighborhood. A closer look – by a birder, at least – will reveal white wingtips and a riot of mottled coloration quite distinct from the usual street pigeon. The breed is the New York Flying Flight, a creation of the city, and the behavior is finely tuned, part of a great aerial game going back to medieval Italy.
If you want to learn about what’s going on up there, you have two good options. You can read the work of Colin Jerolmack, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies at NYU, who spent three years researching pigeon flying in our neighborhood for a PhD, a paper in the journal Ethnography and an upcoming book, The Global Pigeon. Or you can visit Broadway Pigeon & Pets, at 1622 Broadway below the Halsey Street JZ stop, on a Sunday morning.
There used to be many more such shops around the city and across the river in New Jersey, catering to a century’s worth of working-class Italian flyers best known to Hollywood as Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront. Now Broadway Pets is one of the few, and on Sundays flyers gather here from all over Brooklyn and Queens. Joey Scott, a welcoming Italian-Brooklynite, has run the shop for the last seven years. The weekend crowd sit on fifty-pound bags of pigeon feed – Vinny’s Special, Super Crack, Developer – separated by a partition from the walk-in coops in the back. Joey is wheeling out bags of cheap Park mix on a hand truck, “for a lady in Queens who feeds the wild pigeons in the park. She orders eight bags every week.” There’s interest in a cage of young white birds in the back; some are homers, and some are rollers, bred to perform forward tumbles in flight. Someone asks which belong to which breed: “Send them out, and the ones that don’t come back are rollers,” Joey jokes.
Homing pigeons are a whole other game, one that is also popular across Brooklyn and in high-stakes pigeon racing leagues around the country – and about to get more exposure with an Animal Planet series in the works starring Mike Tyson, who grew up racing pigeons in Brownsville. In Bushwick, as well as a few other pockets scattered as far as Canarsie and Ozone Park, another tradition survives which involves much larger flights of the specialized New York Flyers. Simply called pigeon flying, this sport can be traced back to the northern Italian city of Modena and the fourteenth century. The Triganieri of Modena bred pigeons for two behavioral traits: to fly straight up towards the clouds rather than outwards, and to be obsessive flockers. Brought to the Lower East Side by nineteenth century immigrants, the game remains the same: don’t lose your birds, and with any luck, catch a few of your neighbors’ through sheer force of flocking instinct.
The old art survives in a few disparate spots outside of Modena: the city of Homs in Syria; parts of Turkey, and by extension, the strongly Turkish neighborhood of Kreuzberg in Berlin; and here, in a Brooklyn neighborhood of fading Italian presence. Rooftop pigeon coops are no longer six to a block here as the old timers recount, but the tradition is alive enough to fill Bushwick with a battle of wills every sunny Saturday. When the last generation of Italian children moved away, many of the old flyers took in young African-American and Puerto Rican men to help take care of their birds, and this new group, now middle aged, carry the flag.
One flyer, whose name is Aaron Marshall but who goes by Earl in this circle, extends the offer of a rooftop visit. At seven in the morning on a following Saturday we meet the Greek, an old-guard flyer of few words who keeps several hundred birds on top of an apartment building on DeKalb Avenue. With a view reaching from the Hell Gate to the Narrows, the spot commands an overlook of most other flights in the area. White-tipped wings are already aloft when we arrive, but these are only the bottom flight; the top flight is far up in the clouds, almost out of sight, and we have to squint long and hard to spot them. The Greek waves a pirate flag on a long pole to urge the birds even higher.
Other flights come and go in the distance – including a huge tornado from a warehouse roof which Earl says houses over a thousand birds, as well as a few small teams of homers on practice runs – but the Greek keeps his up for more than an hour, by the end of which the skies are mostly clear. The top and bottom flights meet and wheel around the roof, returning to the lower realms at their leisure before landing, as a single body, on the roof of their coop. Immediately the Greek spots and grabs two strangers, birds that have strayed from other flights, as evidenced by their differently colored leg bands. But “when you’ve been doing this as long as me, you don’t need to look at the bands. You know your birds,” he swears.
The two stray pigeons go in a separate carrying cage: the day’s winnings. They will be traded in tomorrow on Broadway for cash and bragging rights, all the sweeter if the owner of their leg bands is present. In this other neighborhood above Bushwick, this open field of medieval battle, there’s a lot to brag about.