Meet Victor, the Upper West Side’s Pigeon-Keeper

by - May 28, 2010 at 11:20 am -

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By Melissa Cooper
Outdoors columnist
Once upon a time, flocks of domestic pigeons ruled the skies over Manhattan, spiraling like tiny tornadoes above the rooftops of the Upper West Side and Harlem. But the area has changed and rooftop pigeon coops have gone the way of independent bookstores (Book Culture, please stay healthy), bodegas and street-corner domino games.

IMG_3301Still there are hold-outs. I recently visited with Victor Casiano, who has kept pigeons on Amsterdam Avenue for over 40 years. We climbed the steep stairs of the building, coming out on the roof that houses Victor’s flock. Free to come and go as they please, the birds return to their coop for food, water, shelter and companionship.

Victor’s birds are known as “flights.” Unlike homers, racers or messenger pigeons, flights are bred to fly in circles high above their home. They take off and land from their own rooftops, never setting foot in the street. According to Victor, the pigeons, like many other Upper West Siders, have grown accustomed to free food delivery and would have a hard time fending for themselves.

Victor opened the coop, scattered seed on the roof, and called to the birds, who emerged a bit shyly from the dim light of the coop. As they ate, he inspected the coop and the flock, shaking his head over a half-grown baby whose parents were ignoring its peeping appeals for food. Then he clapped his hands, called out, and the birds took flight, rising into the stormy gray sky.

In the old days, Victor said, the sky would be full of hundreds upon hundreds of the graceful fliers. These were the days of the pigeon wars when the circling flocks from neighboring coops would clash and interweave in the sky.

IMG_3257Each pigeon owner hoped that when his flock returned at the end of the day, it would draw down prize birds from nearby coops. Those birds were then sold back to their original owner or simply kept.

But today it’s just Victor’s birds that soar overhead, responding to his shouts and calls, before circling down to what may be the last rooftop pigeon coop in the Upper West Side.

(photos by Melissa Cooper)

For more about Victor Casiano and his pigeons as well neighborhood nature news, visit Out walking the dog.

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