Since then, the pigeon-racing community has felt under siege. Its members are wary of strangers, and when approached, they conveniently claim to have quit the sport. They’re also completely exasperated by the allegations; racers have never denied that some pigeons don’t return from races and some will admit that money has long been a part of the sport (though they say the $15 million number is way off). But they’re quick to point out that they inoculate their birds against diseases like pox, paratyphoid, and the dreaded paramyxo, which they call “the twist” because it makes birds rotate their heads around to the back, Exorcist-style. They sew up their birds by hand when they fly into electrical wire. They display their pigeon trophies alongside family photos in their living rooms. To be accused of animal cruelty is a personal affront.
“They have a skylight!” the wife of one racer says of the birds her husband keeps in a coop at the end of their driveway. “I don’t have a skylight.” If you ask Marzena, Skubal’s wife, what she thinks of his pigeons, she just shakes her head. “It’s not fair,” she says. “I raise the kids. He raises the birds.”
Technically, pigeon races start when the birds hit the air, but they really begin a day or two before, when racers drop off their birds at their respective clubs. The one Zak and Skubal belong to, the Viola Pigeon Club, sits on a nondescript patch near Coney Island, mostly surrounded by auto-repair shops. The night before the Fort Littleton race, the pigeon guys started showing up around 7:30 p.m. in vans and trucks, or, in the case of one man whom everyone calls “Pizza,” on a bike often loaded up with pigeon-carrying cases.
The other racers have a tendency to confuse Zak and Skubal for each other, despite the fact that the two men look nothing alike—Zak is bulky with a thick neck; Skubal, tall and lean. They also have a completely different relationship with the birds: Skubal rarely touches them, thinking it makes the pigeons too comfortable with people and therefore more likely to fly down to a stranger, while Zak feeds them by hand. “To him, the birds are like a second marriage,” Skubal says. “I don’t have the time for that.”
Zak’s wife and two daughters live in Poland, and a recent stint of unemployment left him with even more hours to spend on the roof, feeding the birds, cleaning their coops, and just watching the “youngsters,” as he puts it. He’s spent so much time with the pigeons that he’s not only able to pick out his own from a flock, but he can tell you about each bird’s lineage. One pigeon follows him around, tailing his heels like a dog.
So far this year, Zak and Skubal have won two out of the club’s three races (the season works its way up to a 500-mile race that will take place on June 23), continuing their run from 2011, when they won five. They’ve also done well against birds from other clubs, although they haven’t earned the top spot this year. Their success, it turns out, hasn’t exactly endeared them to the other members. “Here you win, nobody likes you,” Zak says. “In Poland, you win and people are happy that the club is strong.” Skubal is more diplomatic: “Everywhere some people are nice, and some people are schmucks.” Last year, another racer accused them of drugging their birds. Skubal called the other guy’s bluff by agreeing to have his birds tested, but only if the man would cover the costs if the birds were clean. The other racer didn’t take him up on the offer.
Outside the Viola club, Zak and Skubal keep to themselves as a racer with a Marlboro Light dangling from his mouth mans the barbecue. One guy who started racing birds out of his bathroom window when he was 9 is talking about his chances in tomorrow’s race. “My birds’ll be an hour late tomorrow,” he says. “They’re too fat.”
Zak has no such worries. “My pigeons are beefy,” he declares. To emphasize his point, he puffs himself out like a weight lifter.
A bird needs more than muscle to beat out the competition. During races, pigeons stay together as long as possible, flying as fast as 70 miles per hour with a tailwind. The key to winning comes down to the final leg of the race: With a thousand birds heading toward coops stretching from Staten Island to Long Island, a pigeon has to be able to break away from the flock at just the right moment, identify its roof from among thousands of others, and head straight home.