True stories with a twist!

I read an article in the April 4th issue of the New York Times describing a Brooklyn man’s hobby; one that has faded in popularity over the years. The most famous person to publicize this hobby was Marlon Brando in the 1954 academy award winning film, “On the Waterfront.” He played the part of a longshoreman and was a rooftop pigeon breeder.             Unknown-1

I hadn’t thought about it in many years, but when I was a child in Queens, I had a cousin in Brooklyn who raised pigeons. He owned a coop on the roof of his apartment building and was their solo caregiver and trainer. He built the coop himself, and it was a bona fide bird coop. I, as a sophisticated, knowledgable ten year old suburbanite, recognized a real bird coop when I saw one.


Where did these birds come from? How did they become members of my cousin’s flock? Was this hobby like having a herd of sheep, a swarm of bees or a gaggle of geese? What makes a group of creatures become attracted to a place and live there as a team? Do they sign long term leases? Do they arrange pre-nuptial agreements to remain together forever? Or agree to long-term contracts rewarding them for remaining in one place?

It was magical the way he would signal the birds to leave their coop, swoop into the air, fly freely around, and then all come back making one dramatic mission statement at the mere sound of his gym teacher-style whistle.

Each pigeon wore a tiny bracelet on its leg identifying it and giving its address. Why, I don’t know. Were there pigeon police? Did the city set up a watchful sheriff’s office with winged deputies to keep the birds in line? What kind of line: a clothes line, chorus line or line veto? Were there citizen vigilantees roaming in search of under-age truant pigeons?

I still wonder how one goes about training a bird or a group of birds to leave their cozy nesting areas and fly to freedom, totally without restraints and without anything keeping them from flying off forever.    images-7

Why would a group of pigeons come home to a dingy rooftop in Brooklyn when they could hop a flight to glamorous Costa Rica or exotic Portugal and enjoy the great weather? Aren’t they curious about what pigeon senoritas are like in other countries? Don’t they have any curiosity about different foods? Perhaps pepitas instead of peanuts? And rather than swilling dirty water puddles on Brooklyn’s drab cold rooftops wouldn’t they prefer sipping sangria on sunny shores?

So many questions; so few answers. No one has yet learned to crack the code of the pigeon mind.

Comments on: "PONDERING PIGEONS" (27)

  1. I enjoyed the moment spending with pigeons especially when feeding them . 🙂

  2. “Why would a group of pigeons come home to a dingy rooftop in Brooklyn when they could hop a flight to glamorous Costa Rica or exotic Portugal and enjoy the great weather?”

    The answer is simple! All the statues are in the cold weather cities!

  3. There was a man at the corner of our block in the Bronx who did the same thing. He had a coop on the roof and dozens of pigeons would leave and return every day. You’ve asked some great questions, but I have no answers. I’m glad there are people still doing this.

    • Yes me too; but the numbers in the hobby are dwindling. Maybe there should be virtual pigeon racing to attract the new generation. Raising pigeons on the computer will also please the PETA people!

  4. There are some incredible stories about pigeons in war… one in particular in 1918, in France, who saved a trapped group of US soldiers who’d been pinned down and surrounded by the Germans for days. This poor darling managed to set off with a message, she was shot, several times, but still managed to get her message back to HQ and therefore save the trapped men.Her wounds were terrible, and she died. I think she;s stuffed and in some military museum… Now I feel like going to look it up to remember all the details!

    • I have heard stories about the amazing things pigeons did during the war. It always amazed me to think that a bird can be trained to deliver messages back and forth. wouldn’t that make an amazing movie, replacing the garbage that passes for entertaining films today? Oh, but that’s another post!

  5. So interesting! What a special thing to remember!

  6. Frances A. O'Brien said:

    Hi Ronnie,

    Amazing. I haven’t thought about or seen them since I lived in Brooklyn many, many years ago. I never understood why people kept them in a cage for their enjoyment. I lived in an area where a few people had them and we did see them around often. Funny that you would remember them.


  7. Hi Ronnie and others, I stumbled across your blog because of your pigeon article. I did not know that The great Marlon Brando acted out a character who kept pigeons. I must look out for that movie on the waterfront next time I visit Youtube. Speaking of which Peta has put a nasty, inaccurate video on Youtube. They are trying to close down pigeon racing worldwide. I have just written a blog about that. They’ve even insulted the Queen!

    They do more bad than good don’t you think?

    Anyone interested view at

    Cheers, I live near Auckland in New Zealand, on a lifestyle country block, fergie.

  8. Anonymous said:

    that is an excellent piece! Coincidentally we were speaking today about animal court systems on my house. I was saying I have the deed, but maybe they have their own court system – that is the groundhogs under the house, the frogs in the pool, the rabbits in the backyard and the deer who come by.

  9. What do pigeons want? Their life is for the birds, Ronnie. If they knew better, they would make a beeline for warmer climes. Thanks for the chuckle and for getting me to wonder where pigeons take off to and ‘just why in heck do they return?’

  10. Lisa Honecker said:

    First, fix the spelling on the word llne, you mean line. Then it’s absolutely funny, clever and perfect, also very good for a reading and I would submit this to Goldfinch 2013, if they ever get out the 2012 one. Hugs. LH

  11. Ronnie you’ve presented an interesting topic with some bit of humor to it. I admire pigeons a lot, though unfortunately in my area there are also hunters who would like to shoot them down with their catapults (Y-shaped).

    • Ozoma, there are quite a few people in pigeon populated areas I know who would love nothing more than to shoot down a few of those messy birds. Catapults, huh? Are they legal? Or do they require licensing the way guns do?

      • Ha-ha. Catapults are sold in our open-air markets. They are the cheapest weapon/hunting tool one can get. Oh, and there is no law against using them. It’s unfortunate that these people who hunt down pigeons, do so primarily for their meat. Beef, they say, is expensive.

  12. Who knows the inner working of any birds mind.. watch a hornbill eat a thick grub with it’s innards dripping out… or the owl feeding on a rat… an eagle ripping a snake apart… and you wonder why a pigeon prefers peanuts.?? I think that maybe the pigeon prefers what he gets fed in the coop than having to eat something unmentionable.. lol… loved this post…

  13. Pigeons are not the most popular birds lately since they tend to leave a big mess, but I love them anyway and always did. When I was a child, the biggest treat was to go to the park to feed the pigeons. They are related to mourning doves I think…. and I love them too. Thanks for this post that humanizes one of my favorite birds. 🙂

    • Feeding the pigeons was a big treat. I remember going to the boardwalk at Coney Island with my parents. We always bought freshly roasted peanuts from the Mr. Peanuts store to feed the pigeons. Why was that so fascinating? I don’t know, but it was.

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