A shrinking group of pigeon racers strive to keep a New York tradition soaring, despite waning interest from the youth and attacks from activists. Lofts scattered throughout the city still bustle with pigeon racers thanks to this dedicated community.
For many fanciers like Joe Green, the tranquility of the coop counterbalances the chaos of life.
While most New Yorkers think of pigeons as “rats with wings,” there is a small yet ardent community that trains them to race.
The dedicated flyers are declining in number, but those remaining are fighting to keep their flailing tradition alive.
“With racing pigeons, you are actually building an athlete to go run a marathon,” said Dominick Guardino, a 49-year-old pigeon racer based in Orange County, N.Y.
Competitive pigeon races are organized by about 1,000 clubs in the United States.
During a race, pigeons are shipped to a designated location. The thoroughbreds of the sky are released simultaneously and then instinctively return to their respective lofts with exceptional homing abilities. Electronic clocks mark when the pigeons enter their coops to determine the race’s winner.
Green tends to his birds every day at the Three Amigos loft in Gravesend, Brooklyn. Green’s friends, the other two amigos, and his brothers have retired — departures that are indicative of a larger trend away from the sport.
Pigeons completed their first 500-mile race in the United States in the 1880s. The American Racing Pigeon Union (ARPU), which sets race rules for its members, was established in 1910 out of volunteers’ garages and the sport enjoyed great popularity in the first half of the 20th century atop New York City tenements.
Since World War II, however, the number of American pigeon racers has declined by more than half, according to the ARPU.
Joe Green’s brothers introduced him to pigeon racing in 1979. Green, 46, tends to his birds every day at the Three Amigos loft in Gravesend, Brooklyn. Green’s friends, the other two amigos, and his brothers have retired — departures that are indicative of a larger trend.
“In the New York area, we don’t have as many pigeon fliers as we want to, but we still got enough to keep the sport going,” Green said, walking through his wooden coops beside the rumbling F train.
Pigeons soar through the air above the rumbling of the New York City Subway.
Sometimes Green races his pigeons against birds belonging to his childhood friend Mike Tyson, whose softer side was explored in Animal Planet’s “Taking on Tyson.” The former boxing champion started raising pigeons to find some peace high above the commotion of the streets. For many fanciers — a person who keeps pigeons — the tranquility of the coop counterbalances the chaos of life.
“When I go into my loft it’s a whole different atmosphere. It takes a lot of stress away,” said Guardino, who faces difficult circumstances regularly as a firefighter.
The program documented Tyson’s start in racing after a lifetime of raising fancy pigeons, which are bred for beauty rather than athleticism. On the program, Tyson did not defeat Green, whose reputation precedes him as one of Brooklyn’s top fliers.
“We’re very competitive here in New York,” Green said. “Anybody on the East Coast that sends birds here, they’re really in for a challenge.”
Green’s brothers introduced him to pigeon racing in 1979.
New York is renowned in the pigeon world due, in part, to the training techniques Guardino, Green and others inherited from previous generations.
Thomas Neuman, a 67-year-old racer in Suffolk County, recalled that he took up the activity in his youth to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps.
“There is a sentimental value associated with it,” Neuman said. “There’s a history in New York City — where my family is from — of doing this. When I was a youngster, a lot of people did it so I had an inclination.”
Fliers with New York City roots have helped spread the sport throughout the tristate area.
Do these look like “rats with wings” to you?
“Most of the flyers (in Orange County) are originally from New York City,” said Guardino, a Brooklyn native. Although New Yorkers have helped spread the sport to different areas, it has been harder to spread it to the next generation.
“It’s hard to get younger guys into it,” said Guardino, who inspired his nephew Chris, 25, to become a fancier. “In this area, the clubs that used to have 50 or 60 members now only have 20 … A lot of younger people today, it has to be technology or they want nothing to do with it.”
“It’s dying out slow but the friendship and stuff is still there,” Green said.
The sport has also come under fire from animal rights activists. PETA released a report from a 15-month investigation into pigeon racing in April. The group accused the sport of abusive practices and widespread avian killing.
The animal rights group PETA accuses the sport of abusive practices and widespread avian killing in the name of gambling.
Jeff Kerr, general counsel to PETA, characterized pigeon racing clubs as nothing more than racketeering organizations.
“Like cockfighting and dogfighting, pigeon racing is all about the gambling,” said Kerr.
“When the public learns of the inherent cruelty in pursuit of human greed,” Kerr continued, “they are rightly repulsed by it and want to spend their time doing something else.”
But pigeon racers argue that the report has misconstrued the sport. Neuman, for instance, said he races for the “love of pigeons,” not profit.
Green runs a pigeon coop that includes show pigeons that, if let loose, might not survive in the wild.
“It’s not the cruel sport that PETA makes it to be,” Green said.
“They are amazing animals,” Guardino said. “There is so much more out there than the people know about the sport. I think if people were more educated about it, more people would start it.”
Pigeon racing may be disappearing, but Green thinks that no matter what, there will always be someone to take the baton. Pigeon racing, for Green, is a staple of the city’s heritage, and it would cease to be the New York he loves without it.
“I couldn’t imagine,” he said. “It’s like Mister Softee driving up the block with no ice cream.”
Sometimes Green races pigeons against his childhood friend Mike Tyson. The former boxing champ started raising pigeons to find some peace high above the commotion of the streets.