Breeding Pigeons on Rooftops, and Crossing Racial Lines
Todd Heisler/The New York Times
Published: April 3, 2013
When New Yorkers consider the subculture of people who raise pigeons on rooftops, many are likely to think of Terry Malloy, the longshoreman in the 1954 film “On the Waterfront” played by Marlon Brando. He was a classic rooftop breeder, rough-hewed, working-class and white ethnic to his toes.
But that image has long needed some alteration because in the dwindling world of rooftop fliers, as they are known, the men are as likely to be working-class blacks or Hispanics. Many were introduced to the hobby by Irish, Italian and other fliers of European descent, an unlikely camaraderie that evolved in neighborhoods like Bushwick, Canarsie and Ozone Park that were undergoing gradual racial shifts.
Ike Jones, an African-American who manages one of the last pigeon supply stores for its Italian-Jewish owner, Joey Scott, said he learned much of the craft when he was about 12. He then became a helper to George Coppola, an Italian rooftop breeder in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
“I was amazed at his coop,” said Mr. Jones, now 65. “He had electricity and running water, and I only had a box made of scrap wood. On Sunday his wife would cook spaghetti and meatballs and I would eat with them because I was always there.”
A new book, “The Global Pigeon,” by Colin Jerolmack, an assistant professor of sociology at New York University who spent three years hanging out with pigeon fliers, makes the point that pigeon breeding brought Italian-Americans and other ethnic whites “into contact with people of a different ethnic and age cohort with whom they were not voluntarily associating before.”
“African-Americans in Bed-Stuy who mostly hang out with other African-Americans, because they keep pigeons wind up being friends with these 85-year-old white guys they would not usually associate with,” Dr. Jerolmack said in an interview.
Take Delroy Sampson, a brawny 60-year-old electrician who calls himself Panama after his country of birth. After 50 years of flying pigeons he still quickens with excitement watching a flock wheel across a blue sky, then spiral up like a whirlwind, split apart into two and merge once again, as if they were a corps of ballerinas choreographed by George Balanchine.
He does much of the choreographing, using a long stick with a Puerto Rican flag — the Panamanian flag he had used fell apart — to scare them into the sky, and sounding chirps and whistles to send them higher or summon them back to the coop.
“They get up there in the clouds — like little dots,” Mr. Sampson said while standing atop the three-family house he shares with his wife and two children. “If you look at them, they actually do somersaults.”
“See that!” he added, spotting a somersault. “I love them.”
Mr. Sampson was first seized with a passion for pigeons as a 10-year-old immigrant when he saw the Walt Disney movie “The Pigeon That Worked a Miracle.” A few years later, he fell under the influence of Joe LaRocca, the president of a pigeon racing club. After Mr. Sampson learned the basics of raising pigeons, Mr. LaRocca and a colleague talked to his mother about his new hobby.
“They gave her the lesser of two evils,” he said. “I could hang out on the street and the street would claim me, or I could be hanging out on the roof with an interest in pigeons.”
A half-century later, Mr. Sampson still breeds his own birds, which come in myriad varieties and look different from feral pigeons that haunt the city’s squares and parks. In shops, pigeons typically cost $5 to $40 apiece, though sires of champion racers can cost six figures.
Like most breeders, Mr. Sampson spends hours each day scraping away bird droppings, hosing down coops, stocking feeders, filling water canisters and hauling 50-pound bags of feed up a 10-foot ladder and through a hatch to the roof. He uses a syringe to vaccinate each of his 300 birds against diseases and keeps a large rooftop medicine chest stocked with antibiotics, herbs, bath salts, treatments for lice and mites, and even Vicks Formula 44 for colds.
“I relate to the birds as if they’re like me,” he said. “If I’m sick, they’re sick. If I’m cold, they’re cold.”
He spends so much time on the roof, he has built himself a shack, outfitted with a heater, a television and a bunk bed for napping. Pigeon flying is often turned into a competitive game, with rivals sending their flocks into the sky to mix with other flocks, with the goal of luring the other pigeons into their own coops. Some breeders also race pigeons.
One thing all fliers lament is that younger people are not taking up the hobby. In the 1950s, every other low-rise roof in certain neighborhoods seemed to have a pigeon coop. But fewer people showed interest in the sport, and landlords also cracked down because gentrifiers did not like the pigeon mess. Dr. Jerolmack estimates there are no more than 300 pigeon fliers left in the city.
Pigeons on Broadway, a supply store under the elevated J line in Bushwick, is among only a small number of pigeon shops left. Mr. Jones, its manager, compares the atmosphere to a barbershop, where “men come to get away from their wives and the pressures of the week.” The camaraderie has often involved vulgar but good-natured taunting about how many birds a flier caught from another’s flocks. The chatter also allows for racial taunts, though some remarks bite too hard.
Mr. Sampson, who has 20 other rooftop fliers within a mile of his house, including the former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, recalled a hurtful moment in the otherwise accepted teasing when during one racing competition someone said “the black guy can’t be beating the white guy — he must be cheating.”
Aaron Marshall was first hooked as a 7-year-old in East Williamsburg watching Italian, Irish and other white pigeon breeders on their roofs and beguiled by the competition, with men boasting, “I caught five on you and he caught five from me.” There and later in Ozone Park, he learned many of his skills from a white man called Teddy the Greek and a Dominican named Louie.
They taught him to keep new birds in the coop for four weeks and only let them out when they are hungry so they will be trained to return. He learned that pigeons may stray from a flock because they become confused, feel threatened by a hawk, lose a mate or find the coop overcrowded. He learned to get rid of birds that frequently pull away from the flock, because such mavericks will lure birds to other flocks. The pigeons, he said, taught him empathy.
“You experience what it is to have a living thing,” said Mr. Marshall, who is now 56 and is a maintenance worker. “It shows you how good you are at caring for it when it comes back. What good is it for a child to have a violent video game compared to having a living, breathing, loving animal that needs your compassion and care? If I hadn’t been on the roof who knows what kind of trouble I would have gotten into.”