Why you should care
Because it’s a dying sport.
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There’s a war brewing on Brooklyn’s rooftops. “We’re friends in the street, but on the roof, it’s every man for himself,” Joey Brunet says. He’s talking about pigeon wars, not gang wars. Brunet owns just over 200 pigeons with pedigree bloodlines (down from the thousand he once cared for) and he’s not alone.
In Brooklyn, around 20 or 30 men keep up to thousands of pigeons on their roofs.
Like most pigeon fliers in New York, Brunet, 42, got into pigeon keeping when he was around 12. For him, pigeon keeping isn’t a hobby, it’s a way of life. Roof pigeons aren’t like the birds that flock to that one guy in Washington Square Park. Think of them instead as the family golden retriever and street pigeons as rabid strays. And just like any beloved pet, roof pigeons require a lot of care. They need to be fed, watered and flown, morning and night, 365 days a year.
While pigeon keeping might seem like a loner activity, it’s anything but. An entire subculture surrounds it. Fathers or uncles pass down the tradition to their sons or nephews, and the guys meet up every Sunday for a barbecue or to just hang out at their version of the local bar: the Brooklyn Pigeon and Pets Supplies, in Bushwick. What differentiates these guys from other pigeon raisers, feeders and lovers around the world is the emphasis on flying as a sport. Really, it’s simple: The guys (this is a largely dudes-only thing) release their flocks into the air and train them to follow commands, like mixing with another nearby, airborne group, going left or right or, most important, returning home to the rooftop. Domestic pigeons are bred for their ability to find their way home. The fliers want their birds to fly “really high” because it shows their strength, explains photographer Aaron Wojack, who spent time photographing and befriending Brooklyn’s pigeon fliers. You also want to lure away your fellow fliers’ birds, considered fair game if you can get them. Of course, “when you lose a pigeon, you’re upset,” says Brunet.
But not everyone thinks pigeons are so majestic, and there are some who would rather evict the fliers and their flocks. Wojack says it’s “definitely a declining sport” now that rooftops are considered prime real estate. Manhattan’s rooftops used to be dotted with pigeon coops, but these days most fliers live in Queens or Brooklyn. And even those groups are dwindling, says Brunet. Some neighbors call the Department of Health and pigeon fliers can get cited. It’s legal to keep pigeons, if the conditions are deemed “sanitary,” according to New York City’s official website. But, according to Brunet, “sanitary” is interpreted with varying degrees of subjectivity. (Since this story was reported, Brunet says he was forced to sell the property where he kept the pigeons.)
As 30-something hipster couples move into Brooklyn, bringing green juices and expensive strollers with them, they’re unwittingly pushing a beloved pastime out. And while Brunet laments that his neighborhood has changed, pigeons will always be a part of his world: “I can’t explain it,” he says, “but once you do it, you are stuck with it for life.”