Beauty in Unexpected Placesby Williams Cole and Meghan McDermott
For some, there may not be much beauty in post-industrial North Brooklyn. But above the rumbling trucks, the rising rents, the tragic hipsters, and the fashions gone awry, there is something truly captivating. Serene and mysterious, they move like a school of fish, following each other closely. With each turn, a different color shimmers as they dip and roll, circle and tumble. You may only know pigeons as the soot-tinged birds that look unhealthily adapted to the street and eye you with purpose, but this sad, sturdy image is only the most visible part of a complex world of keeping, gaming, breeding, and racing pigeons. Scan the sky on any afternoon near Metropolitan Avenue and soon a group appears, swooshing and circling with precision near the rooftops. Sometimes there are three or four clusters of pigeons colliding, merging, and parting above the urban backdrop, against mid-afternoon clouds. These aren’t from the red-eyed packs of “street rats” that hang close to the asphalt, but instead they are birds bred, trained, and, above all, prized.
According to Eric “Quick” Alicea, owner of the Maspeth Bird Store in Queens—a central hub for the vibrant and diverse world of “mumblers” and fanciers—Brooklyn is where the action is when it comes to pigeons. The keepers’ domain is as complex and varied as the people of the borough itself. At one time, Greenpoint was known for its coops but has since given way to the rooftops, fire escapes, and backyards of Williamsburg and Bushwick. There are currently around six main coops and around 40 pockets that include “kits” or “boxes” of about 10 birds each in Williamsburg and about 60 pockets all together including a number of larger coops in Bushwick. Active for more than 70 years, an old school pigeon coop can be seen—above the sparse picket line—near the Domino sugar factory when crossing the Williamsburg Bridge into Manhattan. It conjures up images of Brando’s Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront.
Adorned with a gold pigeon necklace and several rings, Alicea patiently answers the common question, “are they any different from street birds? How do you tell them apart?” He explains that most pigeons you see on the concrete are just one type of the bird called “Blue Tippets,” but that “street rats” are a breed of Tippets all by themselves. Some Tippets have a clean, round eye with a black pupil, while the street breed has orange eyes and, importantly, are not trained or vaccinated. “Some good birds end up on the street,” Alicea says wistfully. Adding to the distinction, a sign in the store warns “leave rats at home,” half-chastising those who bring in possibly diseased street birds, unaware of the differences. As a proud and competitive enterprise, pigeon mumblers and fanciers tease and disrespect each other by saying the other “flies rats.”
In the back of the store there are five large coops separated with chicken wire. In one coop are the “show” or “fancy” pigeons, some of which can hardly fly. They have a wild diversity of looks, ranging from severely puffed out chests to “nuns,” which have a habit-like hood of fine black feathers encircling their heads, to “booties” that have feathers sprouting out from their feet, sometimes up to 2-3 inches long that look like bell bottoms. Then there are the “fannytails,” turkey-like with feathers that spread from their backsides. In another coop are the large, sleek “racers” of the famed carrier pigeon tradition who tend to have longer beaks. Below them is a range of “fliers,” bred and kept to fly through the air in groups. There are over two hundred breeds of birds and among fliers alone there are 50 different pigeon colors and patterns including yellows, blues, chocolates, splashes, monkeys, blazefaces, bulleyes, apples, opals, and checker owls, to name a few.
Alcea’s birds, though, seem to mingle in relative harmony. Pigeons tend to be monogamous and, according to Alicea, “will not easily kick it to another cock or hen.” As Brando’s Malloy observes, “one thing about them, they are very faithful. They get married, just like people, stay that way till one of them dies.” Although they are loyal creatures, pigeons are territorial and can become jealous of other birds not from the native coop. Alicea explains that there are “not many pigeons that will play coops” either, meaning that while they fly and travel across the city and the state, a strong pigeon will always return home eventually.
Similar to the samurai code connecting Forrest Whittaker to his flock in Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog, the pigeon’s trait of loyalty has endured for centuries, making it a reliable method of wartime communication. During the Franco-Prussian war, the Paris Commune used carrier pigeons to stay in touch with the world while under siege. The poignancy of the birds’ endurance is captured in an 1870 account in the Parisian newspaper La Presse:
It arrived, like the runner from the Battle of Marathon, dying, losing blood and gathering in supreme effort all of its energy and fidelity. Its master, who had been watching its hesitating flight through the sky for ten minutes, had recognized it: he reached out his arms and took it gently, poor exhausted bird, in his cupped hands, and kissed it as if it had been a sick child.
Cher Ami, a wounded carrier pigeon flown by the U.S. Army Signal Corps in France during World War I, managed to deliver information locating a “lost battalion” of 194 infantrymen. With their safe return the Department of Service made Cher Ami their mascot and the French awarded the bird with a “Croix de Guerre” for heroic service. No joke. Brooklyn’s pigeon mumblers also use their birds to do battle—to play “catch and keep” between coops in a war of attrition. The motto is “enemies in the air, friends on the street,” says Alicea. The purpose is to lure other pigeons into a coop, which is accomplished through “flattering.” "Flattering" is when pigeons rise and fly in formation beautifully in order to attract the lone pigeon who, if weak, will join in and then land with pigeons from another coop. The stronger the pigeon, the less prone they are to that kind of seduction. There is an understanding among mumblers that the flattered pigeon is not claimed until it is locked into the coop for the night. Those who do not play the game honorably are known as “dog catchers” or “Pokemons.” These mumblers “poke” others pigeons and build their flocks by flattering other mumblers’ birds into their coops without flying any of their own.
Part of being a serious keeper is tagging your own flock by putting bands on their legs when they are young. Alicea’s birds wear the tag “puro sangre” for their pure breed, and “boricua guerrero” for Puerto Rican pride. Often, he knows from the bands whose pigeons he has caught. Of these, he can resell out of the Queens store or just return to other mumblers.
While some play catch and keep, others race their pigeons. In some cases they travel as far as Pennsylvania or North Carolina to “chuck up” or release their birds, timing how long it takes them to get home. As soon as the pigeon is airborne, it starts “routing” in ever widening circles, reconnoitering in order to orient itself before choosing a pathway home to its own coop. No one really knows why the birds do this, or how they get home. “There is no single answer,” explains Franklin Russell, prolific author, naturalist, and former mumbler.
These birds have what Russell likens to a “return skill,” or “the ability to find one’s way across thousands of miles of earth.” Russell describes a bird’s complex system for navigation like that of an aircraft, which orients itself to a route via a signal generated at a heading such as a radio control tower. In the case of pigeons, Russell says it’s possible they are sensitive to earth’s magnetic field and can situate their location in relation to the North Pole. In many respects, this is a radio wave version of celestial navigation, the difference being magnetic rather than visual. What is particularly striking about pigeons is the accuracy of their course; the endurance of flight and the instinctual way they make the best use of information in the sky to “triangulate” a course home. Alicea states from experience that “these birds are capable of flying anywhere and doing anything,” as he releases one of his own birds from the store, knowing it will be back at his home coop, a mile and a half away in a matter of minutes.
Most people do not understand the complexities of pigeons and blame any nuisance on every bird. But, as Alicea notes, his hobby is a positive one, in that it keeps old persons’ spirits up and young people out of trouble. Reflecting on his passion, Alicea describes the beauty of sitting on a rooftop and watching pigeons fly, the significance of being up in the air above the pollution, above the traffic, where “you can fly as high as you want. It would be better than being in a helicopter or a plane.
As New Yorkers, it is hard to imagine pigeons different from the mostly flat gray and aggressive packs of birds in various parks and ledges. But don’t assume you know them when you see them on the street. Some may have just been hard on their luck, rebels, or lured into the anonymous gutter, but they actually embody a history of communications, a diverse and rich subculture, and a scientific conundrum. So stop looking at the new boutiques and the waste transfer stations for inspiration—look up to the clear skies and find beauty in unexpected places.