Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird

Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird

by Andrew D. Blechman
Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird

Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird

by Andrew D. Blechman

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Pigeons have been worshipped as fertility goddesses and revered as symbols of peace. Domesticated since the dawn of man, they’ve been used as crucial communicators in war by every major historical superpower from ancient Egypt to the United States and are credited with saving thousands of lives. Charles Darwin relied heavily on pigeons to help formulate and support his theory of evolution. Yet today they are reviled as “rats with wings.” Author Andrew D. Blechman traveled across the United States and Europe to meet with pigeon fanciers and pigeon haters in a quest to find out how we came to misunderstand one of mankind’s most helpful and steadfast companions. Pigeons captures a Brooklyn man’s quest to win the Main Event (the pigeon world’s equivalent of the Kentucky Derby), as well as a convention dedicated to breeding the perfect bird. Blechman participates in a live pigeon shoot where entrants pay $150; he tracks down Mike Tyson, the nation’s most famous pigeon lover; he spends time with Queen Elizabeth’s Royal Pigeon Handler; and he sheds light on a radical “pro-pigeon underground’ in New York City. In Pigeons, Blechman tells for the first time the remarkable story behind this seemingly unremarkable bird.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802143280
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 10/10/2007
Edition description: First Trade Paper Edition
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 467,509
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

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The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird
By Andrew D. Blechman

Grove Press

Copyright © 2006 Andrew D. Blechman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8021-1834-8

Chapter One

Old Cocks

It's another brutally cold and windy day, the sky a lifeless dull gray. José's brother, Orlando Martinez, parks his truck outside a small run-down cinder-block building beneath the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and warms his hands on the dashboard vents. A sign reads BOROUGH PARK HOMING PIGEON CLUB, EST. 1924.

It's the first club meeting of the new race season. Orlando had suggested I attend this meeting, but now he's starting to regret bringing me along. He takes a deep breath and removes his keys from the ignition. "I have to warn you. All we do at these meetings is fight. We should have come wearing hard hats and bulletproof vests."

Inside there are a few battered benches, discarded school chairs, and a Coke machine that sells Budweiser. A collection of gold trophies capped with regal-looking pigeon figurines sits on a shelf just beneath the water-stained drop ceiling. A few dozen men, ranging from their early twenties to their late seventies, mill around an old feather-encrusted kerosene heater. One man chews on an extinguished cigarette butt, flipping it around with his tongue. It's a rough-looking bunch, and they eye me suspiciously.

Orlando, with his natural buoyancy, easy charm, and boyish smile, stands out from the crowd. His boisterous enthusiasm andloud wisecracks are generally out of step with the club's pervasively dour mood. Despite being in his mid-forties, Orlando shows few signs of traditional maturing. His olive skin is smooth and nearly unwrinkled; he regularly dresses in sneakers and jeans, works erratically, and lives with his mother as well as his chatty young wife, Omayra, more than twenty years his junior.

He struts around the room as if running for political office, playfully slapping backs, throwing fake punches, and showing off his custom-embroidered jacket depicting a gray pigeon with red feet and the words "OJ Loft" (for Orlando and José's racing team, or "loft"). He gets into a discussion about pigeon feed with his friend Sal. "Don't get me wrong, it's clean feed," Orlando says. "But I still think it's garbage."

John Ferraro, the club's large and occasionally ill-tempered president, sits behind a picnic table and calls the meeting to order. He's in a particularly foul mood today, perhaps owing to the facsimile of him that Orlando is passing around: "John Ferraro, wanted for molestation of pigeons. Last seen with a red-checker hen between his legs."

The first order of business is termites. The club's basement is full of them. After some rancorous debate, the members agree to hire an exterminator. Next item is the scheduling and cost of shipping birds. Shipping dates can be a tempestuous topic, because they form the framework upon which the entire racing season is built. The birds are typically dropped off at the club on a Friday night; trucked overnight to a destination, say, three hundred miles away; then released in the morning.

When members check over the shipping schedule, they see that the Northeast Union, an organization that represents all the area race clubs, has scheduled a shipping the same night as the Viola-another popular autumn race with a guaranteed first-place prize of $30,000. That means club members are stuck preparing their birds for one race while welcoming birds home from another. The "fucks" start flying. "I'm tired of us getting fucked up the ass," says a voice in the crowd. "We've done everything but bend down for these motherfuckers," says another. Orlando winces.

To the uninitiated, it may seem like a minor problem, but shipping day is critical. Any racer worth his bag of pigeon feed will spend hours prepping his birds for the Viola, let alone the Main Event. Shipping is a full-day project for Orlando. He spends the morning monitoring the winds aloft and other weather data online so he can judge his birds' nutritional needs. "If it's a hot day, I'll feed them accordingly. For tough race days, I load them up like marathoners on fats, proteins, and carbs. I'll feed them peanuts and safflower seeds. Sometimes I'll give them B-12, amino acids, and brewers yeast. If it's a short race, I'll give them plenty of corn and peas. Picture a boxing trainer. That's what I am."

After the feeding, Orlando concentrates on heightening the birds' motivation with intimacy. Two hours before shipping, he sets out clay nesting bowls and removes a partition in his rooftop coop separating the cocks from the hens. After mere minutes of romance, the birds are again placed into separate compartments, so Orlando can capitalize on their sexual frustration.

"Coming home to food is a big motivator, but pussy's even bigger," Orlando informs me. "I've given up a lot of meals for pussy." As he packs the birds one at a time into the shipping crates, keeping the cocks and hens separate, Orlando gives each bird eye- and nose drops to help clear their nasal passages.

It's obvious that few club members flying birds in the Viola are willing to ship birds that same day. So club members are stuck footing the cost of an additional shipment. "Look around," Ferraro says. "Everybody's on a fixed income. We got to keep our costs down. We're here to make money. That's what it's all about." Members ask Ferraro to look into the matter.

Ferraro wants to talk about technology next. He is trying to convince club members to buy electronic clocks. Currently, when a bird comes home from a race, its owner takes a numbered elastic band off its ankle. The band goes into a capsule and is then placed into a tamper-proof clock, where it is time-coded and stored for safekeeping. The system makes cheating all but impossible, a vital consideration given the fanaticism of racers and the high stakes of some pigeon races.

"Last year I told you electronic clocks were the system of the future," Ferraro says. "Now they're the present. The Maspeth club's using them. So are the Triboro, Long Island, and Nassau clubs. Suffolk is going to start using them next week. These new clocks are unbelievable. They work like an E-ZPass. You put a chip on the bird and the clock scans it as soon as the bird comes in. It even has a built-in master timer that automatically updates using satellites. Next thing it'll be online. No mistakes, no cheating."

The new clocks automate many of the tedious but necessary tasks performed after the races. When the pigeons come home, everyone has to bring their clocks and time-stamped racing bands to the clubhouse so they can be manually entered into the club books and then into a computer that calculates a bird's average speed. Because lofts are located at varying distances from a race's starting point, the first bird home isn't necessarily the winner. As the saying goes, it's a sport with one starting gate and thousands of finishing lines. A certified aerial survey is performed on each loft, and its distance from the race's starting point is precisely calculated to the thousandth of a mile. The winner is the bird with the fastest average speed.

It's a time-consuming process performed by a dwindling membership. Waiting for your pigeons to come home is fun. So is being declared a winner. Entering race data isn't. "Nobody wants to do the work, and there aren't a lot of us left to do it," Ferraro tells me after adjourning the meeting. "Not too many years ago, we used to fill this place up. Now there's nobody-just twelve active members. It's a dying sport."

A week later, many of the Borough Park club members gather at another racing club-a low-slung battleship-gray building in Queens called the Triboro Club. Inside, fifty men munch on six-foot hoagies and macaroni salad while inspecting row upon row of caged pigeons to be auctioned. It's a cross section of blue-collar New York: Puerto Ricans, blacks, Poles, Italians, and other eastern European and Caribbean nationals all milling around, trading breeding tips and pigeon gossip. Skin color is not an issue here; breeding winners is.

Although the Mafia's presence isn't necessarily felt, it's no secret that its members enjoy pigeon racing as well. Reputed Genovese crime captain Anthony Federici was arrested several years ago for climbing onto the roof of his popular Queens restaurant and shooting his shotgun at hawks circling near his pigeon coop. Be that as it may, the guys here today are mostly plumbers, carpenters, and mechanics.

Today's gossip revolves around one breeder who won a series of big races the year before. Several folks suspect he drugged his birds-performance-enhancing steroids are not uncommon. Few are impressed with the birds the breeder has put up for auction. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see something's wrong with these birds," says John Ferarro, pointing to a shit-covered pigeon and his three shivering pals. "They're not even getting proper nutrition."

An auctioneer stands on a folding table and starts the bidding with a healthy-looking pair of gray-and-white homers. "This pair comes from Johnny Russo. Need I say more? He flies a dynamic bird. Do I hear fifty dollars? Okay, fifty-five? Sixty? Seventy? Eighty. Sold for eighty!"

Another set of birds is placed atop the makeshift podium. They waddle to the edge of the cage and stare blankly into the audience. "This man's got the finest birds around. You can't beat Don Pepe's pigeons. These birds are incredible. Do I hear a hundred? One-twenty-five? Okay, let's stop the B.S. ... I want one-thirty ... Sold to Ralphy!" Ralphy wears jeans, a union cap, and a Jets jacket. He retrieves the birds, holding them upside down by their feet, and walks away proudly.

"All right, fellas, listen close. These next birds are from John the Greek. We all know what kind of bird he flies. Now, this is one nice pigeon. You won't be sorry. Do I hear sixty?"

Orlando loses interest in the auction. He raises his own pigeons and often gives away his extras for free. He's here to gossip and trade tips. He gets up and walks around the perimeter of the room, inspecting the birds. "What's most important at this age is their health," he says. "You look at the droppings in the cage, making sure they're solid and not too green-that can mean salmonella or E. coli. You can smell when something's not right. You know what you feed them, so you know what should be coming out. These over here probably come from a dirty coop ... A coop should be vacuumed once a day, minimum, and the water cans should be bleached weekly."

It's a rare moment of undistracted discourse with Orlando. Usually, he fidgets with boredom and interrupts when I ask him to explain the basics of pigeon racing. Other times he fidgets for no apparent reason. Regardless, the interviews are inevitably disrupted by the constant ringing of his cell phone. Whenever I ask what he considers a stupid or repetitive question, I'm treated to a small repertoire of expressions for impatience and frustration: "I've already explained that to you"; "It's too complicated"; and my personal favorite, "Don't make me kill again."

Orlando continues down the wall of pigeon cages. "A healthy bird should never have shit on his feet. That bird over there, he's slouched over too much. He's probably got a weak back. He's not a winner. This guy over here, his legs are too far apart. Remember, they're essentially landing gear."

He reaches into a cage, picks up a bird, and spreads one of its wings. "You always got to look at the tips of the feathers. They're like the rings in a tree. You can tell if a bird missed a day of feeding or if it didn't get enough water. Look here. You see that little line across the top? I'll bet you he was a little sick that day." A missed day of feeding, and it shows up on a feather like a ring on a tree? It's hard to tell if Orlando is a shrewd observer of all things pigeon or simply a wily bullshit artist.

Orlando opens the bird's beak and inspects for cankers and excess mucus, then holds the bird in one hand, inspecting its breastbone, or "keel," which he says should be about five fingers across. "The bird should be well proportioned. You don't want a big head or something."

Some breeders study a pigeon's eyes for pupil size and coloring, which they claim is a predictor for a bird's homing instinct. Orlando says "eye sign" is a load of crap, akin to judging an Olympic athlete by his eye color. "I'm more interested in how a bird feels in my hands and how it handles itself. He should be as curious about me as I am about him."

A bird in the next cage catches Orlando's eye. "I like that bird. Why? I wish I could tell you. Sometimes it's just the way they look at you."

A teenager approaches Orlando for advice. "My birds are sick," the boy says. "They're not dying, but they're, like, in junkie comas. Burned out. Fucked up."

Orlando quickly sums up the situation. "Give them grit, and after the grit, give them a bath and a lot of light. They should also get some acidophilus. They'll come out of it. Just don't give them antibiotics. They'll have no liver left. And they'll get immune anyway."

Orlando's fascination with pigeons dates to early childhood, shortly after his family moved to Brooklyn from Puerto Rico. "As a kid, I always looked up and watched them flying around. I just liked being around them. I still do." As young teenagers, he and José made a coop in the window of their bedroom using milk crates. "We had sixteen birds. They weren't homers; they were flights. We'd let them out the window and watch them fly in circles and come back. All the kids had them. The idea was to catch and keep another guy's bird and sell it back to him for a dollar."

A few years later, Orlando and his brother built their first rooftop loft and spent much of their time protecting it from pigeon burglars, or "tappers." "When you're living in an apartment building in the ghetto, having a coop is different," says Orlando. "The hard part is making sure no one steals your birds. We couldn't have a big coop for our flights because wood was expensive, and so the construction had to be reinforced using tar paper and tin. The coop was more like a crawl space, so no one could break in."

Before he began racing homers, Orlando used to go out drinking most nights. After a stint in jail on Rikers Island, he sobered up and rediscovered his love of pigeons. Now he's too busy with his pigeons to get in trouble. His choice of friends has changed, too. "I find myself associating mainly with other pigeon racers," he tells me. "If you tell most people you're one of the best pigeon racers in New York, they won't be impressed. But other racers? They know."

It wasn't until Orlando was in his twenties that he could actually afford his first loft of racing homers. "José and I always wanted homers, but they were beyond our reach. We were just kids. To have homers, you need a car for training and someone to guide you through it. We didn't have the knowledge, roof space, or the money."

Orlando's racing mentor was a Queens pet-shop owner by the name of Frank Klein, who learned the sport from his father. It was Klein who gave Orlando and José their first four homers. But the brothers struggled with the sport's complexity. "If we came in next to last in a race, we were happy because we weren't last," Orlando says. The next year Klein took the brothers under his wing, and OJ Loft won its first race.

"Franky saw that we had potential, that we could be contenders. He taught us everything. We were inseparable, always together. Franky's the Grand Master. There is no better. Every time I visit him, I think I should bring a tape recorder."

Klein, who's now retired and spends his time racing pigeons from his home on the Jersey shore, remembers the young Orlando as a "nice boy, a little on the wild side.

"One day Orlando comes into the store-it was called Tuttie's pet shop-and he sees my homers," Klein tells me. "He gets crazy on them. You know what I mean? He's insistent. He has to have them. He had the interest right away ... But he didn't know anything about them. I set him straight. I got him on the right foot. You know what I'm saying?"

A few years later, in 1994, the brothers won the Main Event for the first time. "Orlando's one of the top guns in the sport right now," Klein says. "José lost interest. But Orlando? He puts the work in. You understand? It don't come from nothing. No matter how good the birds are, if you don't take care of them, nothing happens. Like racehorses. You know what I mean?"


Excerpted from PIGEONS by Andrew D. Blechman Copyright © 2006 by Andrew D. Blechman. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Pigeonholed     1
Old Cocks     19
Through Rain, Sleet, and...a Hail of Bullets     30
Drs. Frankenstein     40
Evolution, Peapods, and Pigeons     50
Dr. Pigeon, I Presume?     61
Pull!     73
Inside the Cuckoo Clock     103
Flying Rats     129
Mike and Me     164
Great Expectations     181
The Old Bird's Birds     194
The Breast Farm     211
The Main Event     223
They Had No Choice     231
Acknowledgments     237
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