By Zach Schepis
Photo courtesy of Sean Horan.
It started on a late fall afternoon. A simple game of catch on a Bushwick rooftop as the last rays of sunlight tiptoed into the West.
The pigeons completely surrounded the building. Hundreds of them–each flock forming perfect concentric halos in the sky above. Before long everyone laid their mitts down to watch.
The stranger came running into view along the perimeter of an adjacent rooftop. Hoisting and pulling down his black flag, it appeared like the man was conducting the birds like his personal symphony.
Later, back on the street an elderly tenant working in the doorway of the building barred entrance.
“Sorry kids,” he said as if it were an old routine. “It’s not my place to let you up there. If you want to learn what Elijah does, go to the pigeon store. Sundays. Early in the morning.”
The place is an old neighborhood haunt that you could walk by for years without noticing.
But inside, hundreds of pigeons flutter back and forth in tightly packed cages lined up from wall to ceiling. Some birds are a startling white, others dotted, speckled, or full-feathered coats of black and grays, Jacobin Pigeons, Green Imperial Pigeons…
A group of working-class African American and Hispanic men form a circle at the center of Pigeon & Pet Supplies. They heft bulk bags of birdseed onto creaking dollies that are shuttled out back doors onto idling flatbeds.
The “birdmen” are a shadowed group that pepper our city skylines. Their mystery looms in memory as distant characters from cartoons and film.
But they are quite real. Just out of sight and out of reach, pigeon flyers inhabit a world that is coming closer with each passing day towards pushing them away forever.
“What’s the score today Ike?”
Joey Scott scribbles down the order on a legal pad. His voice is husky and full of gentle authority.
“Six bags. Load them up.”
Scott runs the shop. He’s been flying pigeons for almost 20 years. Sunday mornings are always busy because all the local flyers gather together to collect the week’s feed and regale one another with stories.
There are the younger flyers shoveling hay in the corner. They’ve gone through many stages, or “rounds” of breeding so far this season and with little success to show for it. A store worker explains he’s not surprised that they’ve already had to restart the process again and again.
Two of the older flyers talk in hushed excitement about some of their fondest memories. Scott walks over to listen.
“The flock battles. Not like they used to.”
“I won’t forget it.”
Years ago they were a daily occurrence. Two flyers on different rooftops–one sending challenge to the other. Both groups of pigeons pushing off, flying directly into one another. Just at the moment of collision the two droves coalesce into a single flock.
You’d hope for some of your opponent’s birds to touch-down with yours. Captured birds are trophies, often returned with a removable tag to tally score or initiate bragging rights.
“Those were the best,” Scott chimes in. “Back when there was a coop on every roof.”
Gentrification has forced almost all of these old flyers into submission. With the eastward-bound sweep of high-priced condominiums and commercial chains, the flyers are forced to migrate on their own.
“People call them rats with wings. They think [pigeons] are disgusting,” says one of the flyers who goes by Elijah. He has agreed to open the doors to his roof; to allow a look at both his coop and his birds in action.
For years shop owners have uprooted Elijah’s peaceable coops. What began as a childhood hobby that his father showed him to help battle aggression now gets misunderstood by almost everyone he encounters.
“They don’t see that these birds have a history” he says, cupping a pigeon in his calloused hands.
Our society considers pigeons a nuisance, and popular culture perpetuates a disgusted response. Think of Woody Allen condemning them in 1980’s Stardust Memories, or when satirist Tim Lehrer sang “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” back in 1959.
Really, pigeons have a long and fascinating past.
Over 6,000 years ago the wild ancestor of the feral pigeon, known as the rock pigeon, was first domesticated in the Middle East.
Millions of them used to live in urban areas on almost every continent. Now these remaining rock pigeons only inhabit remote parts of the Mediterranean, North Africa and western Asia.
By the 5th century BC people began employing pigeons as message carriers. In both Syria and Persia, intricate networks of these messenger birds cropped up throughout the land. All it took to domesticate them was a change in the location of the nest. Dovecotes lined with ledges and clay pots were capable of accommodating hundreds, and at times even thousands, of female birds.
While pigeon meat provided protein, their popularity quickly diminished. Chickens were soon heralded to be far superior in regards to mass production. In North America the only domestic variety that remained were either shot for sport (a practice banned in 1921) or saved for rearing and racing.
The days of flying and racing these birds threaten to gather dust as an old tale, one that a much smaller group continues to tell and embody. Standing in the middle of the Pigeon Supplies store, there is a sense of survival and intimacy present in the air that probably never existed until recent decades.
Each flyer brings his unfaltering passion to the roof. He shares it with dozens of birds during tranquil hours of quiet, commanding them through harmonious meditation.
Elijah stands outside of his coop on a roof near Dekalb Street. We laugh together as he explains how there are no differences between the dove, our long-cherished symbol of peace and freedom, and the humble pigeon.
He watches the last of his flock descend in a slow float to their perch. The sun is setting after a long Sunday evening of feeding, rebuilding, and the rustling of wings.
There is a sadness that isn’t quite sad, a quiet triumph that doesn’t need to shout to be heard.
“When I first started flying, I did it to escape,” he muses. “From pain; from bad circumstance. Now it’s different. Now I do it because I feel free. They help me feel free.”