Have you ever looked up in Williamsburg or Bushwick to see a cloud of pigeons flying in wide circles, and wondered, “What the hell?” We certainly have, and filmmaker Heather Spilkin used to, too, until she decided to do something about it. By asking around she eventually gained access to a rooftop pigeon coop and the world of New York pigeon breeders, a group of people dedicated to the care, housing, and sometimes, for sport, flying of pigeons. Spilkin decided to document the hobby, once abundant in Brooklyn but now almost extinct, and the people she met—such as “Big” Frank, of Bushwick, who chose his birds over his wife, or Louie, who claims the pigeons kept him off the streets.
Spilkin’s film, Above Brooklyn, is an entertaining and insightful look at a subculture populated by a very New York group of characters. Some of the men, nearly all in their 40s or older, treat their pigeons like pets, possibly naming each of their 2,000-odd birds; some try to capture birds from other coops, selling them at a shop along Broadway, as a type of competition. The film takes us to the New York Combine, a group dedicated to breeding the American Domestic Show Flight, a fancy pigeon first envisioned by the Combine in the 1940s, and finally achieved through precise breeding.
Why did you decide to do a documentary on pigeon breeders?
It was about six years ago the first time I saw someone flying birds in Brooklyn. I was standing outside of my friend’s apartment in Williamsburg when hundreds of colorful pigeons suddenly appeared and began to circle the sky in beautiful formations. I could see a man standing on a nearby rooftop, guiding them with a black flag, and I was instantly intrigued. I started asking around the neighborhood if anyone knew the local pigeon flyer, and some people had no idea what I was talking about even though this was going on literally right over their heads. So it was appealing to me as an old school, semi-secret subculture that I wanted to learn more about. I was also kind of looking for an excuse to get up on the roof and hang out with the pigeon guys. Making a documentary is a great way to ingratiate yourself with a group of people you may not otherwise encounter in your daily life.
The men in your film seem fairly private or at least wrapped in a world of their own. How did you get them to let you into that world and film so much of it? What was their reaction?
The majority of them were very welcoming and gracious about inviting me up to their rooftops. They loved the idea of a documentary about pigeon breeders because they want more people to discover and get involved in the hobby/sport. They often spoke about the old days when you would see many more pigeons flying in the sky, and I think they miss the camaraderie of having a larger group of fellow pigeon fanciers. They like to play a game called catch/keep, that involves tricking another breeder’s pigeons to land on your rooftop. This game is much more fun and competitive when you have a larger number of people flying birds at the same time. Also, these guys are obsessed with their birds, so they really enjoyed the opportunity to show me their favorite pigeons and tell me all about their breeding and flying techniques.
I loved the different approaches the people in your film have to pigeons (sport, pets, hobby). Can you tell us a little more about some of your favorite characters?
All of the guys I interviewed could tell me the detailed histories for many of their pigeons without even looking at the leg bands. They would point out a particular bird and tell me its backstory, and I wondered how they could recognize it because to me, it looked just like hundreds of other birds in their stock.
Most of the people in the film seem to be 40 or older. Does it seem like, even in Brooklyn, pigeon fancying is dying out? Are there any younger people that are getting into it?
I met a few younger pigeon fanciers, but their numbers are dwindling. It’s the kind of hobby that is passed down from father to son, and these days the sons seem to have lost interest. It’s also become increasingly difficult to gain rooftop access for the coops. Since the shooting of the film, José had to sell off all his birds because he lost his rooftop access. I’ve heard that he’s into snakes now.
Where is the densest cluster of coops?
The most dense cluster of coops is in Bushwick. There used to be many more pigeon breeders in Williamsburg, but they’ve been pushed out along with the gentrification of the neighborhood. Some people don’t like the idea of a pigeon coop on the roof because they think it lowers the property value, while others really like it, because the breeders are up there all the time caring for the birds, so they can help watch over the building and keep things safe.
Is there anything we should know, that didn’t make it into the film?
Up until until 1957, the US army used homing pigeons for communications and reconnaissance purposes. My favorite historical pigeon is Cher Ami, who saved the lives of 194 soldiers in WWI by flying across enemy lines to successfully deliver a message after having been shot in the chest and leg during the journey.