The skies of Bushwick have been emptier since a massive fire, a week ago, killed 500 trained pigeons trapped on the roof of a DeKalb Avenue building. But racing pigeons still fly over the neighborhood. On a recent afternoon, a flock of the beautiful, multi-colored birds passed over one of the buildings that lines the eastern side of Maria Hernandez Park. Some were bright white with brown wings, others black with grey specks; some had small short beaks, or feather “crowns” on top of their heads. These were no rats with wings.
Every day, Juan Rodriguez, 43, comes out of the tent-like structure where he lives on the rooftop and tends to the pigeons. Known as “Tree,” he towers over the plywood and tarp shelter he built himself.
Born in Puerto Rico, Tree moved to the Bronx as a child, where he was introduced to pigeon breeding and flying by a friend at the age of six. The hobby has remained a part of his life ever since, even as he moved back and forth from New York to Puerto Rico. “Nobody out here loves their pigeons more than me,” Tree said one afternoon in his deep, mellow voice. “This is my hobby till the day I die.”
Over the years, Tree has been on several rooftops in the Bronx and Bushwick. After being forced off his last rooftop when a new owner bought the building about a year ago, Tree joined his long-time friend David, on the roof of David’s family’s building. He and David each have their own coops on the rooftop. “We call him The Bird Man,” David said as Tree danced to Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” and fed the birds while yelling, “Come to Dada! Come to Dada! Come eat!”
“Tree’s crazy,” David said.
In exchange for free rent for the space on the roof, Tree is super of the building, keeping the front clean in addition to taking care of all of the pigeons. In order to support his three kids, who live with their mother, Tree works security for a local nightclub. But tending to his pigeons is what he loves. “I’ve had a girlfriend ask me about my pigeons, she was like, ‘Why do you love them so much?’ he said. “I told her they don’t talk back to me. My pigeons, they always come first, then you.” Tree and his girlfriend broke up pretty soon after that.
Tree knows each and every single one of his pigeons. He knows their personalities, which ones will give him a hard time, which pigeon is paired with which, and which babies are whose. He knows which pigeons are from where and how long he’s had each one. After letting them out for a flight, he can tell if any are missing when it’s time for them to go back inside the coop.
Tree also knows all of the pigeon keepers in Bushwick, and which leg-band color belongs to whom. On any given morning or afternoon, pigeon keepers will fly their flocks in circles around Bushwick’s relatively low rooftops, forming “tornadoes” or “hurricanes” of flickering wings over the wide open skies.
The breeders will first let out the pigeons from the coop, and then “chase” or “spook” them with long bamboo poles that often have flags or bags attached to them. This gets them in the air. “They keep their pigeons hungry so that they have control over them,” Tree said. Once the pigeons are in the air, they’ll fly as a flock in tight circles around the rooftop, usually swooping down every few rounds. According to Tree, this is because the pigeons are so hungry, they don’t want to fly too far, so they stay close to their coops. “The second they drop feed, all their pigeons come to them, that’s how they train them,” he said. “That’s not how I train my pigeons.”
Tree finds his joy not in having total control over his birds but in watching them fly away, going wherever they want —“13, 14 blocks away”—and knowing that they’ll come back to him. “You feed a pigeon, he knows where he’s from,” he said. “He won’t go to nobody else because I take care of them. And if he lands on another rooftop, keep him! I don’t want him back, that’s not a smart pigeon.”
Winter was breeding time for Tree’s pigeons, which means during the months of December and January, Tree was busy buying dozens of pigeons from local pet stores in Brooklyn and raising new babies. Although he let them out on top of the coop occasionally for some fresh air, new pigeons meant that he couldn’t fly his flock too much; the new ones, not yet used to their new home, would’ve gone astray, heading back to their original homes. Before he could start flying his whole flock regularly, he had to wait for all of the new ones to make their home in his coup and pair off with one another. Once a pigeon finds a mate, the chances of it leaving the rooftop lessen.
As spring approached, Tree started letting his pigeons out to fly. Slowly, he’s been getting birds he accumulated over winter in the air. Having a lot of new birds does mean that some may fly away and never return. Some of the birds he bought from stores may go straight to where they were born, some of the ones born in his coop may stray to other rooftops, too young to know any better.
The pigeon breeders of Bushwick have made it a sport to catch one another’s pigeons. In order to catch someone else’s pigeons, a pigeon breeder must have his own pigeons out on his rooftop— that way if another breeder’s pigeon flies over his rooftop, it might “mingle” with his pigeons. Once he lets the flock back inside, the stray pigeon will hopefully follow suit. The breeder will then keep the pigeon’s old band as a sort of trophy and put his own band on the pigeon.
Tree’s bands are two shades of green— he uses different combinations of the two to indicate which pigeons are new, which ones are old, and which ones were born in his coop. “These are all the bands of the pigeons I’ve caught,” Tree said, holding up a string with dozens of bands in various colors attached to it.
When they aren’t engaged in full-fledged pigeon war, many local flyers, like Paul Wohlfarth, gather at Broadway Pigeon & Pet Supplies, under the Jamaica line. “Enemies in the skies, friends on the streets,” said Tree. “That’s the name of the game out here.”
It’s a war far less dangerous than the trouble the pigeon breeders say they’d be getting into without their hobby. “The pigeons keep me busy, they keep me out of trouble,” Tree says. For the most part, that is. A few years ago, Tree partook in illegal pigeon nettings in which he and others would set out feed on the ground of parks, wait for pigeons to gather and then trap them with a net. “We used to sell them for $4 or $5 a bird, to the chicken market or to shooters.” After landing on a wanted list, Tree decided it was better to stop.
Now, the pigeons are an escape for Tree. Spending time with his pigeons is what he does to get away from the world. The rooftop is a place where he doesn’t have to deal with other people, a sanctuary of sorts where he can relax and meditate, which is why he doesn’t mind his small quarters. “I have a TV in there, a full size bed that turns into a couch, a radio. Oh yeah, I got the hookup!”
Tree is never happier than when he’s sitting on the lawn chair in front of his little home on the rooftop, cigarette in hand, eyes glued to the sky following the pigeons fluttering over his head.