Up on the Roof with a Pigeon Coop Guy
posted: March 28, 2007
I got an email from David, who had discovered my profiles of rooftop pigeon coop guys on Overlooked New York. He said his dad had been raising pigeons since he was a kid. He went on to say, "He is 61 years old and is still humping his butt, bringing sacks of feed to the rooftop, winter, spring, summer and fall. He suffers from heart disease, and this is what keeps his mind at ease. The reason I am emailing you is to see if you can add his story in your website.  This would really make him happy."

So I went up to the South Bronx to meet his dad, Leo. As I approached the building, there was a swarm of hundreds of pigeons swooping in a giant whirlpool in the sunny March sky. Four flights of stairs later, we opened the roof door to Leo's pigeon paradise, and with latin music blasting from the windows in the apartments below, he told me his story.

"I started raising pigeons down on Clinton Street, when I was about 14 years old. In those days, there were a lot of buildings that were abandoned, and you could go up to the roofs, without permission, and fly birds and build coops.

"Back then we used to catch other guys' birds, and get paid 25 cents to give them back; 25 cents was hard to get, back then! Now it's 3 dollars, if they catch your bird. But I don't pay; any bird that flies off and goes to someone else's coop...well, that means they're not smart. And I don't want stupid birds! If they give them back free, well, then I'll take them; but I won't pay for them!

"When I get a new bird, I keep 'em in the coop for about a month, and then I let 'em out and let 'em walk around, and when they know their way around, I chase them up to the sky. And they might come back and they might not. You know, you can have a bird for one or two years, and he always comes back, but once they find their home, wherever they came from, they go.

"My wife, in the beginning, when I started keeping birds, she didn't trust me–she thought I had somebody else! But now, my wife, she tells me to go shopping with her, and I say, 'No, I have to go to the pigeons.' Or she says, 'How come you clean the coop, but you can't clean up at home?' And I say, 'Oh, that's different!'

"I like them: the way they fly, the way they start making love ... and the best thing is, they will tell you when there's a bird flying around, because they all start looking up! You don't have to be looking up–they do it for you!

"I come everyday, and when it's a nice day, I stay five or six hours, if I don't have anything to do; I just sit down and look around and have fun up here.

"The main enemies of the birds is rats and hawks. There was a hawk around here we used to call Freddie Kruger. One time me and my friend were up here, and he said, 'Here comes Freddie! Get the hoopla ready!'–I got a hoop to catch birds–so I get the hoopla, but I don't see Freddie!  I say, 'Where is he? Where is he?' But I couldn't see him because when the hawks dive in for a kill, they put their wings back and fly straight down like a bullet, so I didn't see him at first. Then, when I saw him coming straight at me, I grabbed my friend and pulled him in front of me, as a shield! He said, 'What're you doing!!' And Freddier flew right into the coop, grabbed a bird, and turned around and flew right back out! And I was too scared to hoop him on the way out!

"I wish I could keep birds here all my life. But I don't know if the landlord might come and say to take it out, and I'd have to do it."