Pigeon People

No hipsters being ironic on fixies, no yuppies warming hot cocoa for their newborns in out of place “new builds”, just raw city, raw like an old carpet…

Story by By Teo J. Babini - teo@kodezero.com Photos by Teo J. Babini & Max Power

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Halfway to Canarsie on a sunny Sunday morning. Nowhere Brooklyn. Comin’ up from the train cave, you don’t even feel like you’re in the city, save for the elevated platform a few blocks down. The buildings are so short around here that the big blue sky looks wide open, almost oppressive in its bearing down on you.

As I make my way, my ears perk up to the humming cacophony of “Hallelujah’s” and “Praise the lord’s” emanating from the store front gospel and Baptist churches that pepper the corners, as many as three on one block sometimes. Somehow reminiscent of Istanbul when the call to prayer sounds from all the mosques in one great big ensemble hymn. But make no mistake, as far as BK’s concerned; it gets no realer than this. No hipsters being ironic on fixies, no yuppies warming hot cocoa for their newborns in out of place “new builds”, just raw city, raw like an old carpet you haven’t bothered to beat since the beginning of time.

Messenger pigeon Photo ©Max Power

Broadway Pigeons and Pet Supplies is a little shop a ways from the train. If you miss the green awning you won’t miss the caged parrot hanging out in the middle of the sidewalk surrounded by men yelling at each other about god knows what. It’s not that they’re arguing, it’s more like that’s just the way that they talk. Inside things were much more hospitable, albeit a bit cramped with stacks of feed all around, as well as, casually scattered animals (mostly birds, but I did see one hamster hidin’ amongst the sacks). I met Joey Scott, the owner, and the good ol’ Brooklyn boys who were all very curious about my accent, or lack there of. The back room is like church for pigeon people with various coops and hundreds of pigeons, but these fellas don’t come just to do business. No these guys come by to hang out and shoot the shit like the doo wop barbershop days. No better way to get the skinny on the pigeon game then to spend a couple hours with the veterans.

Champigeon Photo ©Max Power

Flying Rats Vs. Show Pigeons

Now, I know what you’re thinkin’, you’re probably thinking that pigeon keeping is a disgusting habit, but, in fact, you’re most likely inserting your prior bias about the pigeons that have been bothering you for food and shitting on you your whole life. Those dirty vermin which people install spikes to keep away from their buildings. Well, guess what? These guys feel the same way. “Flying rats” Joey Scott calls them.

On the other hand, the pigeons you find in coops are not captured, but seriously bred. Joey has three separate coops in his yard, one for cocks, one for hens, and a third for mixing and breeding. Each one of his pigeons has a birth band around its leg. When purchasing a pigeon, one cane wielding old timer demonstrated, you actually grab the pigeon in your hand and carefully examine its eyes, beak, head, wings, and legs. “You notice the obvious things”, he said, “The color, the feathers… I been doin’ this forever, it’s all about the details… This one here’s a show pigeon”

Flamboyant Photo ©Max Power

Pigeon Vs. Predator

Brooklyn is a tough place, even for the birds, and for some of its toothier residents a coop full of pigeons looks like a well-stocked refrigerator.

The main enemies of the pigeon are the peregrine falcon and the red-tailed hawk, both of which, like their feral prey, have adapted to urban living. Joey Scott flies the pigeons from his personal rooftop coop daily. When he releases them, puts up his flag, and whistles they fly in a beautiful vortex-like formation. Unfortunately, when a bird of pray comes around they break formation and fly for shelter, if they are moulting they do not fly as well and might not have the energy to dash back to their home roof. Joey makes sure to feed his feathered friends prior to flight so they have maximum energy.

One persistent hawk followed the Joey’s flock back to his roof looking for blood. Luckily, Joey’s daughter came to the rescue initially trying to scare away the unflinching hawk and subsequently whacking it with a broom.

Not again Photo ©Max Power

Judging by their coexistence on the streets you’d probably never expect that rats are also a danger to pigeons, although it is more difficult to come by. See, rats don’t normally like to go as high up as a rooftop and pigeons are usually not nesting so close to the ground in coops. One of the guys in the shop had a fox/farmer conflict with a rat that was picking off his pigeons in the night a few at a time. The rat seemed too smart for traps, and uninterested in poison with so much squab around. The man sadly killed one of his beloved birds leaving its carcass as an offering for to the beast, with some extra special spices… Talk about a last meal before lethal injection.

Red eye Photo ©Max Power

Old School Vs. New School

Most of the fellas in the shop are older guys who’ve grown up in the pigeon culture… Old world Brooklynites just like you’d expect, with coops that existed well before they did. It may seem, like many other NYC institutions that this one too will soon pass into extinction. Something talked about rather than done. Something you’ve seen in period films. But before you write this one in the books, don’t forget that these guys have kids growin’ up with the birds just like they did, not to mention the “new guy”. Joey told me this young kid came outta nowhere and started his own coop with thirty birds… I can only hope that he carries the torch and keeps this classic hobby from disappearing into the halls of history.

2 Responses to “Pigeon People”

  1. Zvi A. Sesling says:

    Nice story and photos, enjoyed it all.

  2. Teo J. Babini says:

    Thanks, Zvi! Hope to collabo with you soon! You’ll find poetry in the doodle section.