A few summers ago Chris Arnade noticed flocks of pigeons flying above Maria Hernandez Park in Bushwick. As an avid amateur photographer, the birds’ graceful movements caught his eye, and Arnade tracked the flocks to rooftops around the neighborhood, where he met a thriving community of pigeon keepers.
Pigeon fanatics have been tending rooftop coops for years, explained Arnade, who lives in Brooklyn Heights and works as a Wall Street trader when he’s not snapping photos on his Nikon D70. The sport was big in the 1930s and 1940s and back then it was mostly Italians; today, Puerto Ricans rule the coops.
Keepers generally release the birds to fly at least once a day, using long poles with flags attached, as well as whistles to signal to the birds. Trying to collect each others’ pigeons is a big part of the game, and some guys take the leg bands off of collected birds, and make necklaces and other trophies from them. Often, if a flock is attacked by hawk and scatters, another keeper will send up their own flock in an attempt to gather wayward birds. The keepers in Bushwick all know each other and talk to each other, said Arnade, though there is an element of rivalry at work. “Some guys like each other, some don’t,” he said. “In the old days though, it was much more aggressive.”
Every Sunday keepers hold auctions, where birds sell for $4 to $100. The pigeons are bred and bought for a variety of qualities–“flights” are birds that can fly long distances, “homers” are just that–pigeons good at homing. (These birds are not homing pigeons–that’s a whole other sport wherein the birds race over long distances.) After spending a year photographing birds and their keepers in Bushwick, as well as East New York and the Bronx, Arnade says that he can tell a bird from a kept flock from a street pigeon, or “clinker.” “They’re cleaner,” he explained, “And they’re different colors, white and green, blue. Their faces are a different shape than street pigeons.”
Visit our slideshow of Chris Arnade’s photos of Bushwick pigeons and their keepers, or, for birds from Bushwick, East New York and the Bronx, visit his Flicker set, Pigeons Keepers of NYC.