The Brooklyn Pigeon War
Burro erratically waved a 20-foot pole on top of a Bushwick roof. “See that one?” he asked. “The brown one, right there!” He gestured with his neck to a racing flock of pigeons overhead as they pitched and rolled in unison through the bleak October sky. The flock hesitated on their next pass and effortlessly descended down to the roof, settling on the top of their homemade coop. Burro approached them and pointed to one separate from the rest. “That’s ‘Whitey’s,’” he said. “We got him.”
Pigeon flying, either for competition or for sport, has been an elusive cultural spectacle in New York City and in other parts of the world for hundreds of years. Flyers Burro and LG – who both requested to be referred to by their nicknames – represent a division in the pigeon-flying world. While most flyers train their birds for endurance or time trials, the duo tries to capture other flyer’s birds for themselves.
Burro and LG have been flying pigeons in Brooklyn since they were children. The pair grew up in Bushwick in the 1980s. They’d watch local Pigeon flyers toss up their flocks and talk trash in the pet store. It was only a matter of time before they would have their own coop. The pair now has over 1,200 birds, which they fly daily from their rooftop outpost on Melrose Street in Bushwick.
Burro and LG’s coop is unimpressive at first glance with its three shabby rectangular structures plastered with tar and finished with loose lumber. The tops of the structures are covered in a patchy layer of pigeon excrement.
The interior is guarded on either side by a locked steel door. Despite its obvious mess, it’s oddly organized and tidy: hundreds of pigeonholes to house roosting birds, a separate area for the sick, designated feeding zones, and a detached coop for “prisoners” – or captured birds from other flyers.
Pigeon flyers aim to catch birds from other coops around the city. “It’s war with everybody, bro,” Burro said while admiring his catch of the week.
“It’s war. When I want the birds I go, ‘boom!’” he said. “And that’s it. Then they’re mine.”
At the sight of a neighboring flock, Burro immediately sent his birds to the sky.
He again waved a 20-foot pole to-and-fro. “Send them up!” he yelled, encouraging them to fly higher. “Get them to mix!”
“Mixing” is when one flock of birds blends with another, disorienting them and tricking the birds into returning to a foreign coop. “You gotta get as many birds of his as you can,” Burro said. “We’ve caught around 10 today.”
Captured birds are then either sold at auction in Long Island for the flyers’ profit or retrained by their new owners to add to their stock.
“See these here? These are the prisoners,” Burro said, gesturing to a coop packed full of pigeons. “I’m going to brainwash them. Hold them until they get comfortable with this coop.”
Respective pigeon flyrs “tag” their birds by clipping plastic rings around their feet, identifying them with a specific coop around the city. The prisoner’s coop is a whirlwind of color with birds jostling for position – each brandishing a different colored tag around its feet. The color-coded tags read names like “Whitey,” “Frank,” and “Macho.”
According to Burro and LG, pigeon coops are scattered throughout New York City, the majority being in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Many, pigeon flyers negotiate with building owners for permission to use their roofs. “We’ve been [on Melrose Street] for almost two years. We knew the owner of the building,” Burro said. “If anything is wrong with the roof we’ll fix it. That’s the agreement.”
However, the rapidly developing landscape of Brooklyn, is forcing many flyers to relocate their coops.
“We were down on Troutman [Street] for about 10 years, but the building was sold and the new owners didn’t want the birds on the roof,” Burro said. “There used to be tons of flyers in Williamsburg because no one lived there, but now they are all being pushed farther into Brooklyn.”
The amount of time flyers put into their birds can also put strain on their personal lives.
“They [family] are always complaining that we don’t spend enough time with them,” Burro said after a phone call with his wife. “There is always a problem.”
Burro says that he can spend up to eight hours a day with his birds yet maintains a full time job as a metal worker. Pigeon flying is not a lucrative business, and the profits made from selling pigeons at auction go directly into the development of the coop.
“This is not a job, it’s a hobby. Some guys live off pigeons but they raise and sell them,” Burro said. “I don’t like selling my birds anyways.”