To get to his rooftop, Paul Wohlfarth passes by a gigantic stag’s head hanging in the hallway, climbs a wobbly ladder and slips through a narrow opening. The 64-year-old has been repeating these gymnastics for the past six decades. On top of his building is a fenced coop, housing more than 250 pigeons in different compartments. Wohlfarth, a roofer by profession, can recognize any of his birds in a flash. “That one with the blue band is a tippler,” he says. “It’s got a short beak, a wide eye. If you didn’t know, you’d think it’s a street pigeon. But there are a million breeds.”
Pigeon breeding became popular in New York in the mid-1950s. Brought by Italian and Irish immigrants, the practice developed in Brooklyn and the Bronx, among middle and working classes. “There used to be flyers on every block,” Wohlfarth recalled, pointing at the surroundings. “There was a guy in a factory down here, right on Seneca and Harman. He had pigeons since the 1930s up till, I’d say, the mid-late 1980s.”
But times changed. Once a thriving subculture, pigeon breeding has been shrinking. “There might be only 300 breeders left,” said Colin Jerolmack, an associate professor of sociology at New York University and author of The Global Pigeon. “We never had counts of how many coops there used to be, but when I read accounts of pigeons flying in the 1950s, they constantly say thousands.” Flyers themselves confirm this decline, frequently calling their activity a “dying sport.”
Paul Wohlfarth discovered pigeon breeding when he was a kid, through his grandfather. He spent long hours on the family’s rooftop in Ridgewood, Queens, scrubbing the coop, feeding the birds and learning their specificities. “The thing I like is to breed fancy-color ones that no one else has,” he said, waving a black flag tied to a bamboo stick to help his pigeons fly together.
Rushing out of their dwelling, the birds soar above the roof, whirling with majesty like choreographers before slowly melting into the horizon. When Wohlfarth whistles at them, they come back down in a split second and land on the coop, scattered in small groups. As a reward, the breeder feeds them with wheat, peas and oat, a mixture that he always buys at the same shop.
Hidden under the Jamaica Line, in the heart of Bushwick, Joey and Mike Scott’s pigeon store is a meeting point for the remaining Brooklyn flyers. Walking fast, always looking busy, Joey Scott manages his business with authority. “A guy came in this morning and dropped off these shitty crates, thinking I would give him a $40 pigeon for free,” he said. “Who does he think I am?” In the back room, dozens of racing pigeons flap their wings inside four large pens, scrutinized by potential buyers.
The customers at Broadway Pigeon & Pet Supplies are either white old-timers, well into their sixties with Sicilian-sounding family names, or middle-aged men who, for the most part, are African-American or Puerto Rican. While ethnic groups tend to live separately in this neighborhood, breeders are bound by a common passion.
“Historically, pigeon-keeping was passed on from father to son,” said Jerolmack. “Maintaining 500 pigeons is a lot of work. You needed your son to clean the coop, take care of the birds, get food from the store.” But in the 1970s, working-class neighborhoods such as Bushwick, Williamsburg and Canarsie changed dramatically. The arrival of black and Hispanic communities caused “white flight” to suburban areas in Long Island or New Jersey. Many flyers had to stop their activity.
The remaining breeders faced a practical problem: they needed help to deal with the pigeons, but their own children had left. They decided to recruit younger men of color and teach them the basics. Former boxing legend Mike Tyson was one of these teenagers. “Pigeons were the first loving relationship I ever had,” he wrote in 2011 in The New York Times. “As a matter of fact, when a bully that was antagonizing me killed one of my birds in front of me, I snapped and began fighting him. If it weren’t for this guy hurting my beloved animal, I may not have ever had the desire to fight.”
As they got more experienced, the young breeders started to develop their own practice. “I was able to build a small coop and kept about four pigeons on my fire escape when I was around 11 or 12,” said Leslie Francis, a tailor and karate champion, who came to the U.S. from Trinidad in the early 1970s. “I had to open the window to feed them.”
This golden age would last two decades. In the late 1990s, a new social force, gentrification, supplanted it. “The buildings where a lot of the guys were renting apartments were sold 15 years ago and turned into condos. Many flyers had to leave,” said Jerolmack. “But even if they got to stay, the owners wouldn’t let them keep their coops, whether because it was a fire hazard or because they found it disgusting, or because they wanted to put a rooftop deck and provide access for everybody.”
The new neighbors also appeared less tolerant to pigeons, often dismissed as “rats with wings.” A common fear was that the birds would defecate on a newly built terrace and spread diseases. If a flock got too close, some residents would not hesitate to complain.
The reality is somewhat different. Breeders vaccinate their pigeons and fly them hungry to make sure they will head back home. Paul Wohlfarth cleans his coop with Clorox, adds apple cider vinegar to the water trays and has medications for the birds’ eyes. “When I take care of the pigeons, I take care of them myself. It’s a job,” he said.
As with many challenging occupations, money can be an issue. Earlier this year, Leslie Francis had to get rid of his tipplers and flights – the most popular breeds in New York – before flying to Trinidad. Louie Ponce, another frequent visitor to Joey Scott’s store, lost his whole flock during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Both men consider starting back from scratch, but are concerned with expenses that can amount to several thousands dollars a year.
Old-timers also regret the lack of interest from younger generations. “If any kid wanted a pigeon, I would teach him,” said Wohlfarth. “I would breed some pigeons and give them for nothing. But the thing is, it’s too much of a job. Kids play with computers now. You don’t see them play with stickball in the street or stoopball or stuff like that.”
“My friend Joe Demini, rest his soul, he was the nicest man, and his wife hated pigeons,” he added. “But I said, ‘You know what, he’s better on a roof with his pigeons than in a bar drinking, looking for another girlfriend or betting the numbers and playing horses.’ So she just kept quiet on that one.”
Breeding pigeons is a solitary activity that involves long hours grooming the birds, training them and trying to have them fly tighter. But it’s also a way to engage with a community, especially through the so-called “pigeon wars.” The game consists of luring birds from another breeder into one’s own coop. “If we’re friends we give them back to each other for nothing, cause we all got different bands on them, or sell them back for a dollar or two,” said Wohlfarth. “If we’re not friends, we just catch-keep them.”
On weekends, breeders go to the Scott brothers’ store to discuss their respective performances. “Some guys pretend they never lose a bird, but they’re lying. Nobody’s invincible,” said Joey Scott. Red-tailed hawk attacks, which the city uses to chase street pigeons, are another subject of heated debates between flyers.
But far away from the manly atmosphere of the store, breeders find peace and serenity on their rooftop. “I’m up there and I forget about the aggravation of my problems for a while, especially if my pigeons go high and nice,” said Wohlfarth. “It’s relaxing.”
“I had a dream, the other day,” said Leslie Francis. “I had these babies. They were up to maybe a week old and they were in my hand. They had this little yellow fur on them that they have when they’re born. They start to lose it after a week or so and it turns into baby feathers. I always dream about pigeons, flying them. It was a good dream.”