Greyhounds of the Sky

Pigeons released on June 2 in Pennsylvania, heading toward New York.Photo: Christopher Anderson

The sun has been up for an hour, and the pigeons, all 1,008 of them, sit in the back of a truck across from the Freedom Worship Center in Fort Littleton, Pennsylvania. The truck has driven through the night, delivering the birds before dawn to the small parking lot from which they will fly roughly 250 miles home to New York. Walking that distance would take a person over three days. These birds can fly it in less than four hours.

At 6:45 a.m., the driver flips a lever at the back of the truck, simultaneously opening every carrier with a loud slam. The pigeons stream out in a rush of wings and circle, orienting themselves in the sky. Then, all at once, as if on cue, they head east.

It is a good day for a pigeon race: clear, with only a slight breeze and no hint of a storm. The birds will get some help from a north wind at the start, but by the time they near city limits, having passed over the Appalachian Mountains, and the Susquehanna and Delaware Rivers, they will be pushing against an east wind, which will slow them down. Zenon Skubal, 43, and Jerzy Zak, 48, two Polish men who keep a coop together on Skubal’s roof in the Mapleton section of Brooklyn, have seventeen birds on that truck. The previous week, their birds had taken second and third place out of 945, but the wind could make all the difference.

Zak reaches Skubal’s house around 9 a.m., and together they climb the rickety ladder to the top of Skubal’s building from which rows of rooftops stretch out in all directions. They sit down on a bench, their backs resting against a Styrofoam-and-­plywood pigeon coop, and peer into the horizon.

In the fifties, hundreds of guys kept pigeons, and swarms of birds flew above the city; some of them were flights, or “fancies,” the kind that can still be seen zooming around in big tornadoes above Bushwick or South Williamsburg, but many were ­homers, which fly lower and can find their way home from up to a thousand miles away. The sport isn’t as popular today, with younger people deterred by the cost (a flock of 100 birds costs its owner about $400 a month) and the time (at least two hours of upkeep a day). But pigeon racing stays afloat thanks in part to crops of newer immigrants from places like Eastern Europe and China, where, incidentally, a shipping magnate purchased a racing pigeon for $328,000 in January. Skubal had kept homing pigeons in Poland but never competed, although sometimes he’d lend his birds to other racers ­because he liked watching them return. Now it takes more to impress him. “It’s like when you open a business—the first million is a big thing,” he says, “After that, not so much.” Zak grew up racing birds with his father, and when he met Skubal in 2004, their relationship mostly consisted of his teaching Skubal everything he knew.

The two men are aware that having such intimate contact with the 200 pigeons in their flock puts them somewhat at odds with other New Yorkers, whose prevailing view of the birds is that they spend their time either poking around oily puddles or crapping indiscriminately. But racers are used to outsiders not knowing, for example, that pigeons are incredibly intelligent, capable of learning to distinguish between a Monet and a Picasso, or that street birds, which racers call “clinkers,” have a somewhat unfair reputation for being disease-addled. Plus, racing pigeons look different. Seen up close, the iridescence on their necks practically glistens. Their feathers are silky. They have two legs, both of which are still attached to their bodies. Once you’ve been around enough homing pigeons, the clinkers, so covered in grime, start to look perennially out of focus.

More recently, racers have had to defend themselves against not only the birds’ detractors but also animal activists. In April, with the sport’s reputation already struggling under the weight of its most notable participant, Mike Tyson (a picture of Tyson kissing a pigeon that made the social-media rounds was captioned “Why doves cry”), peta released a video. In footage apparently filmed with hidden cameras, people with blurred-out faces divulged how many ­racing pigeons never make it home (“We lose a third of them, normally”). “Tens of thousands of pigeons die,” Jeff Kerr, peta’s general counsel, tells me. “How would people feel if over half the entrants in the New York City Marathon died before the finish line?” More damagingly, the video’s narrator estimated that across the country, $15 million is bet on this “blood sport” every year. In New York state, the only kind of legal animal-racing gambling involves horses.

Zenon Skubal, a pigeon racer, at his rooftop coop in Mapleton.Photo: Jenny Westerhoff/New York Magazine

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.

Zak and Skubal begin training their young birds in early spring, first letting them out to fly above their loft in scattered circles. “Everything’s something new for a pigeon. You have to teach them piece by piece,” says Skubal. After several outings, the birds naturally learn to coalesce into a tighter group and start exploring farther from the coop, finding their way back like boomerangs. About two months later, they travel so far that they disappear beyond the horizon, returning a few hours later. This is the moment that Zak and Skubal wait for; it’s a milestone signaling they can begin training in earnest. From this point on, the two men wake up five days a week to release the birds at 5 a.m. from the ­Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and then incrementally farther, until the pigeons can fly home from 50 miles away—any more might burn them out. It’s essential to preserve the birds’ strength for the races.

How exactly homing pigeons navigate remains something of a mystery. The general consensus is that they use two compass systems—the sun and, when the sun isn’t visible, magnetic fields. “Everybody by and large agrees on that,” says Charles Walcott, a professor emeritus at Cornell who’s been studying pigeons since the sixties. “But that’s about all they agree on.”

As for how the birds know where they are and in which direction to fly: “Italians think it could be due to odors,” Walcott says, referring to a theory that the birds navigate by using an olfactory map. In 2006, scientists in Italy severed the olfactory nerve in 24 birds, and only four made it home. “Some Germans think it’s largely the Earth’s magnetic field. A fellow in California thinks it could be low-frequency sounds.” (Pigeons can hear octaves below what we can.) “Maybe they can detect seismic movements of the Earth. What they’re doing with those noises, nobody has a clue.”

Then there are the small tricks racers use to encourage the birds to fly back more quickly. Before races, Zak and Skubal switch out the seed mix they usually give to the pigeons for a blend of two diet feeds from Belgium that keep the birds buoyant and a little hungry, making them all the more eager to get home. Sometimes, they put a live fly into a plastic egg and stick it under a pigeon. The rattling sound tricks the bird into thinking it has a chick ready to hatch. (Such motivational techniques don’t go over well with animal activists.)

But there’s a limit to what a racer can do. The birds are ultimately at the mercy of the elements, and a pigeon, even a great one, could take up with another flock for reasons that defy logic, or get waylaid by a storm. It could also be attacked by hawks, an animal whose importance looms so large in the minds of racers that they refer to them as simply “the hawk,” as if there’s a single, terrible falcon roaming the sky. One of Skubal and Zak’s best birds recently returned from a race with a gash on its side, taking it out of commission for weeks. “The hawk,” one racer tells me. “The hawk’s gotten out of hand.”

Ten hours before the birds are to be released in Pennsylvania, Zak is at the Viola club, registering his pigeons for the race. He hands them over one by one so that the small identifying chip around their legs can be scanned (the chip also clocks the time the birds return to their coop). Occasionally, Zak stops to inspect a bird’s wings, fanning out the feathers like a deck of cards. The wing tips, which can fall out if a bird is stressed, are key to how well they’re able to fly.

The next morning, Zak is sitting on the roof with Skubal, and sees one of his birds in the sky. It appears as if from nowhere, hurtling down the corridor of backyard behind the house. “It’s coming! It’s coming!” he shouts. Zak and Skubal whistle to help the bird locate the coop. The speck, now closer, spirals around the building, wings spread, before tucking its feet, leaning back, and landing. Zak and Skubal switch to other ­noises—a combination of “awoo, awoo” and what sounds like “hodge, hodge, hodge”—trying to coax the pigeon across the threshold of the loft, at which point its flying speed will finally be recorded (in this case, 44 miles per hour). For a moment, the bird sits motionless. Then, abruptly, it hops down to the coop’s bird-size entrance and waddles inside.

Zak steps through the coop’s human-size entrance and scoops up the bird in his hand. It is one of his favorites. “My champion,” he calls it. He doesn’t know it now, but during a race the following Saturday, it would have trouble returning, and Zak would field phone calls from other guys. “Anything yet? No?” he’d ask them. “Where is my champion?” he’d mutter to no one in particular. (The bird would find its way back, eventually.)

But for now, Zak peers down at the pigeon, which is all muscle and graceful lines. It’s done well, coming in first in his club and sixth overall. He holds it gently, smoothing its feathers. Then, as abruptly as he’s picked it up, he lets it go. The bird flutters to the ground and Zak goes back to the bench to watch the sky, noting a street bird, a flock of geese, a seagull, and finally, the next speck sloping down toward the roof.

See the pigeons being released.
Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine

Greyhounds of the Sky