A Brooklyn fire last week that wiped out a pigeon keeper’s flock of 500 birds was the latest blow to a working-class pastime that has dwindled from its heyday in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.
Rising rents and gentrification have left only about 100 pigeon keepers in the New York City area, down from a few thousand decades ago.
“Years ago there was pigeon coops on every roof,” said Paul Wohlfarth, whose family has been raising pigeons in Queens for three generations, part of a tradition that began with immigrants from Italy, Germany and Belgium.
“I learned it from my grandfather,” Wohlfarth said as a few dozen of his birds circled overhead. “It gets in your blood. You go up there, you forget your problems. You watch the pigeons fly.”
But it’s about more than the quiet contemplation of nature. Pigeon owners work year-round, in good weather and bad, to lug bags of feed to the roof, clean out the coops, and care for the birds by giving them vaccines and dietary supplements.
And then there’s the competition, which begins when keepers release their flocks into the air at the same time. The clouds of pigeons fly at one another, intermingle and then return to their home rooftops. But when they do, they’ll often bring birds from the competing flocks. Those strays are then caught by the keepers, who put new identification bands on their legs and add them to their own flocks.
“You can come in and brag about how you caught X number of pigeons off of somebody else,” said Colin Jerolmack, an NYU professor who has written a book about the city’s pigeon pastime. “That’s a huge part of the allure.”
But the tradition of pigeons flying over communities around New York City has dwindled over the years, driven mainly by a large chunk of the keepers and their families moving to the suburbs in the 1970s and ’80s.
Many of the pigeon enthusiasts who do remain, a collection of mostly older men with day jobs in the construction trades, gather every Sunday at Broadway Pigeon and Pet Supplies in Bushwick to share war stories and take playful jabs at fellow wranglers. Store co-owner Joey Scott says they all live by a simple motto: “Friends in the street. Enemies on the roof.”
The shop is a mile from the three buildings in Bushwick gutted by the March 29 fire that forced 30 families from their homes. The coop sat atop one of the buildings, and the 500 birds were killed before they could escape. Edwin Torres, whose family was displaced by the blaze, said he could hear the birds “screaming like babies.”
Gil Arciliares, the owner who lost his birds in the fire, was too distraught to talk about it, said his wife, Gina Cruz: “He’s devastated.”