With an Eye on the Sky, Pigeon Racers Fawn Over Their Beloved Flocks

Email a Friend

For most New Yorkers, pigeons are considered one of the city's foulest pests. But for a small group of folks, the birds are cherished for their grace, intellect and, most importantly, their speed. Those who race pigeons — a small segment of the population that nearly vanished as gentrification threatened the hobby — fawn over their flocks and help keep the longstanding tradition alive. 

In the years after World War II, tending pigeons was a popular hobby in the city. Pigeon coops were kept on hundreds of New York rooftops, and it was almost impossible to walk down the street in certain neighborhoods without seeing flocks of birds flying overhead.

But development and gentrification took their toll on rooftop coops, and the practice of keeping racing and homing pigeons nearly vanished entirely. But now some are bringing it back and others keeping the tradition alive.   

One of them is Mohammad Asif, 52, who immigrated from Pakistan 25 years ago.

"The birds are like my kids. I love them," he said.

Everyday he rushes from work at a construction company he owns to spend time at his coop.

"When I come back, I come on the roof and I fly my birds. Then I lie down and watch them," he said.

Asif grew up surrounded by pigeons in Pakistan, and his relatives back in Punjab province still own hundreds of them. After he moved to New York, he brought family members over and developed a successful business but he missed his birds.

Seven years ago Asif asked his brother to send him a few pigeons from their family coop. He got 12 pairs of Pakistani tipplers, graceful white pigeons with dark heads and tails. Today, he has dozens of them on the rooftop of his house in Midwood, Brooklyn.

He says about a dozen Pakistani immigrants keep tipplers in New York. They’ve revived this hobby, along with immigrants who came from other countries where tending pigeons is still very common, like India, Poland and Russia.

These new Americans join the old-timers -- some of whom have been training pigeons for decades, like William Corsello, a retired construction worker from Brighton Beach whose father had pigeons during the Great Depression.

"This was a cheap way to pass time," said Corsello, who keeps approximately 70 birds in his loft. "Today the youth are interested in other things, not pigeons. It’s something to do. I’m 84-years old and it keeps me alive."

The hobby may have been cheap in the past, but the bird lovers say that today it has become pricey. Asif said he spends around $800 for heat, feed and medicines for his flock every month.

It's also very time-consuming.

"It's 365 days a year," said Anthony Martire, 49, who keeps his birds on the rooftop of his auto radiator shop in Coney Island, Brooklyn.

The coop has been there since 1947 and was set up by his father. Anthony also runs Neptune Pet Supply next door to his auto shop, and many long-time pigeon hobbyists hang out there every weekend.

Anthony said he takes care of his birds as if they were little athletes.

"When you are racing you gotta have a special diet: high in protein at the beginning of the week to build up the muscles," he said.

Toward the end of the week it changes — more carbohydrates to give them energy.

"It's a lot of work, a lot of time. I could be up there all day but you know, I have my business and there are certain things I have to do," he said.

On a racing morning, the birds are taken as far as 400 miles away from their coops and released to fly home — fast. Racing pigeons can fly around 65 miles an hour with a good wind, and around 35 miles an hour with headwinds.

Pakistani tipplers, called highflyers, also compete but their task is not to race but to fly very high and circle as long as possible — even all day — before returning to the coop.

Sometimes Asif holds competitions in his backyard. It's a social event.

"When we have a competition, you don't believe how many people come down: sometime 30 people, 35 people, and we have a breakfast," he said. "And my family cooks a food for lunch for everybody. We have a very good time."

The bird lovers have formed a tight community, and often use the Internet to exchange information with friends throughout the U.S. and Pakistan.

"I have my movie on YouTube," Asif said. "Sometimes I send photos to my friends and also they send me new babies or when they have new breed, they send me pictures."

The Internet — the modern messenger pigeon — is helping pigeon enthusiasts build a future for their hobby in New York. It's also recently been in the spotlight thanks to Mike Tyson who kept a coop growing up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and recently starred in a pigeon-racing series called "Taking on Tyson" on Animal Planet.

Ewa Kern Jedrychowska is a reporter with Feet in Two Worlds, a project that brings the work of immigrant journalists to public radio.