Brooklyn has a long and storied relationship with the homing pigeon. Who can forget Marlon Brando's portrayal of Terry Malloy in "On the Waterfront"? At once strong and nurturing, Terry mirrored the care and passion of hundreds of pigeon racers throughout the borough.
Homing pigeons are not to be confused with the gad-about slackers that have long held the top spot on the nuisance list of most New Yorkers. These are avian athletes, bred for speed and endurance, who with their remarkable navigational instinct, find their way home over hundreds of miles.
Pigeon racing, which was hugely popular in Europe, especially Belgium, was brought to America during the 1870s. It proved so successful that by the 1880s Brooklyn had its first organization devoted to the homing pigeon: The Kings County Homing Pigeon Club, organized by Mr. Henry Rover of 28 Broadway. They were soon joined by the Brooklyn Homing Pigeon Club, and the Hudson Homing Club, although numerous individual enterprises had previously been in existence. This unfettered enthusiasm made Brooklyn third in the nation, behind New York and Philadelphia, in the cultivation of these flying aces.
August 15, 1886
As with other sports the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was there at its inception to chronicle its rise as a beloved pastime. News about races, sales, pigeon thefts, and meetings appeared regularly. In the March 24, 1895 edition the Brooklyn Daily Eagle offered this article on the economics of getting started with pigeon flying.
Boys are famous lovers of outdoor pets. Among these pigeons have not usually been counted until recently, owing to their cost. Now, however, a boy can buy a good pair of homing pigeons for 60 cents, nail a soap box upon a shed in the yard in the rear of his house and consider himself a pigeon fancier.
The racing seasons ran from May to July for older birds and from July to September for younger birds. An ever-growing list of clubs and organizations organized races in which the pigeons achieved extraordinary speeds, all covered by the Eagle. Fanciers challenged their charges by taking them farther and farther -- to Maryland, Washington, North Carolina, Georgia and even as far away as New Orleans, with the results printed in the sports section.
June 22, 1886
Mr. Henry Rover, of 28 Broadway, this city, last week sent six of his homing pigeons to the headquarters of the Hudson Homing club, of which he is a member, to be entered in the race of that club from Abingdon, Va. The birds were liberated on Monday, 4:32 A. M.; none arrived home on Sunday as expected. Mr. Rover was sitting in his garden yesterday afternoon when to his delight one of his birds, a blue cock, No. 7,619, arrived and entered its lofts at 3:21. Mr. Rover immediately telegraphed Mrs. E. S. Starr, the federation secretary, in New York, the facts, and about 9 P.M. received a dispatch saying his was the only bird that had reached home up to that time.
June 24, 1889
Six homing pigeons of the Hudson Homing Club of this city were liberated last Sunday morning in a race from Newton, N.C. airline distance over 500 miles. The entries were J.S. Iverson, 1: John Ballard, 2: G.K. Bradshaw, 3. The start was at 5:10 A.M., under favorable weather and wind. The first and only return the same day was to the loft of Joseph Iverson, at 5:35 P.M., distance 517 1/2 miles, making an average speed of 1,222 yards per minute, breaking the best previous record of 1,162 yards per minute, made by a bird owned by Samuel Taylor, of Baltimore, Md.
So popular was the sport that in 1887 the Brooklyn Daily Eagle got into the act by sponsoring a race and offering a silver trophy.
April 22, 1887
It is a handsome silver cup about ten inches high. On one side is engraved the figure of a pigeon in full flight. On the other is a representation of a pigeon returned to its loft. Competition will be open to all lofts of birds whose owners are members of the Federation of American Fanciers of Pigeon Flying. The distance will be 375 miles or over and the prize will be awarded to the best average speed.
With the arrival of the 20th century, there emerged other recreational opportunities competing for the time and attention of enthusiasts, but the sport hung on. In 1924 there numbered about 300 pigeon fanciers in Brooklyn, and the paper would continue its eagle-eyed coverage of all things pigeon, even as legislation threatened to clip their wings and remove them from the rooftops of Brooklyn.
The sport of pigeon racing has declined in the past 50 years. But even with T.V., the internet, and a whole host of digital diversions, there are still those who seek the quiet rivalry, companionship and connection to nature that pigeon racing offers. Many saw Mike Tyson's 6-part program on Animal Planet. Like a modern day Terry Malloy, Tyson was filmed exploring his lifelong attachment to pigeons as he raced them from his Bushwick loft.
Sketch by June Koffi.
The beauty of the flock's collective movement has not escaped Aaron Wojack who has turned his lens on Brooklyn's pigeon fanciers, creating beautiful photos of the special bond between man and bird. For more of Aaron's work, click on the link and scroll to the right.
Photograph courtesy of Aaron Wojack
Heather Spilkin's 2009 documentary Above Brooklyn opens another window into this quirky, therapeutic and sometimes cut-throat rooftop world. Says one fancier: "If it wasn't for this, who knows where I'd be--be in jail, be killed--they keep me off the street."