Keeping the Sport of Pigeon Racing Alive Along the Gold Coast
Pigeon Racing: The Fading Glory of a Waterfront Sport
Photos by Bob Foster
By Toni Giovanetti
Gold Coast – 10/13/88
Years ago, when On the Waterfront was filmed in Hoboken, the manly art of keeping homing pigeons was captured forever on celluloid. In it, Marlon Brando, as Terry Mulloy, gently tended pigeons atop his dreary tenement house.
Hoboken then was a classic pigeon racing town. Now it is a nostalgic pigeon racing town.
At the turn of the century, it was the perfect environment for Eastern European-style pigeon racing. The pairing of a large immigrant population with agricultural roots and the architectural trend toward flat roofs set the scene for rooftop pigeons lofts to flourish.
As time goes by, immigrants’ sons, grandsons and great grandsons grow distant from their heritage. They are moving away from the melting pot neighborhoods and have little interest in tenuous ties to nature. They don’t have the time or money or interest in spending hours each day training, feeding and cleaning up after the birds.
Pigeon racers readily admit they are a dying breed. The Hudson County Homing Pigeon Club has seen its number of racing lofts dwindle from a high of 60 to about 15 in recent years. The club membership is higher,- but most of those members, no longer race birds. They help organize club events and hang around on race nights, socializing. So the club survives on the bond between the men and tradition.
Kenny Williams’s pigeon coop is atop the roof of a Jersey City establishment known as Harbor Casino. The neighborhood bar is his home away from home. That’s where he sees his friends and tends to the only hobby he has ever had.
Each day around 6 p.m., Williams goes through the bar, out a door in the back, through an inner courtyard and up two rickety ladders to get to his birds. He flies them, waters them and then feeds them. He shares the rooftop “loft” with another flier who has a coop there because he can’t keep pigeons where he lives.
In the past five years, many of the men have been banding together, two or three of them sharing lofts on a roof. It’s an alternative for some who have moved out of the area and can’t keep the birds because of the zoning laws where they now live. Others have moved into condominiums and have nowhere to put their birds. And some need to share their coops because they’re getting too old to do all of the caretaking of the pigeons by themselves.
On a windy day as the sun sets in a fiery orange ball, he leads a visitor up to the roof, warning that he has a habit of swearing at the birds to do his bidding.
A woman moved in upstairs and she opened the window one day and asked me who I was fighting with. I’m not fighting with anyone, I’m talking to my pigeons,” Williams says, looking at the window.
Walking over to the coop, he chases off a cat trying to snare a bird by poking its paw through the chicken wire. The birds are making nervous cooing noises.
Like most of the fliers, Williams, 72, has been keeping pigeons since lie was a young boy. His first coop was in an outhouse. Since then he’s shared roofs with several other fliers.
“When I was a kid, my parents always knew where I was. It kept me off the street. Most of my friends were into raising pigeons, too,” Williams says. “I think it’s the best hobby in the world.”
He built the coop he’s using now about four years ago, “just before Colgate announced their phase-out.” Williams, who worked in the factory, recently retired from his job. Unmarried, he divides his time between girlfriends, his drinking buddies and the “boids.”
The name of his loft is God’s Pigeons.
He opens up the coop and walks in, chasing most of the young birds into one of the open-air wire runs from which they will be released. The older birds remain on the other side of the coop, watching in a kind of dignified way, blinking and hopping as more birds flap into
the run. All of the birds are handsomely colored grays and blues, some having mixed markings of white feathers in the tails and
green feathers on the throat.
Behind the coop in the distance, the Statue of Liberty is clearly visible. From the east side of the roof, the World Trade Center towers gleam from across the Hudson River. Enormous swallow-like kites swoop and dive in the wind next to the river and sailboats ply their way just yards from cruise boats. When Williams is up on the roof, it’s just him and his pigeons.
“OK, whenever you’re ready, guys and girls,” Williams says, opening the fronts of the cages. The birds fly out en masse, though a few, still. spooked, stay behind. Williams. waving his arms around, scares them up.
As seagulls flop by in the distance, the pigeons fly graceful figure eights overhead in an aerial ballet. Williams watches them and his expression changes from irritation to bliss.
Williams knows his birds well and calls his favorites by name. He recalls the fate of one of his best racers, Marissa. Someone sent him a letter with two bands enclosed. The bird was found dead by the Jersey Turnpike and the letter writer traced it back to him through the bands. Apparently the pigeon had flown into a telephone wire. Most racers know all of their birds, whether they have “40 or 400,” he says.
“You’re dedicated to them. If you think a fisherman’s wife has problems, then you haven’t met the wife of a husband who flies homers … I keep all of my records on who’s the mother and who’s the father of each bird when they’re mated together. And you need to know who’s a. good pigeon and who’s a bad pigeon.”
Unlike “street rats,” or wild pigeons, the birds are more or less pedigreed, many of them having blood-lines that lead from pure¬bred Belgian birds, recognized as the finest in the world. Fliers pay -any¬where from $500 to $2,000 per bird in auctions for the best of the breeds. Some fliers follow old superstitions in picking their racers by looking at the “eye signs.” Depending on the way the eyes are colored or the darkness and size of colorings around the pupils, they decide which birds to sell or cull from their young birds and which to keep.
The birds fly around in a flock formation for about half an hour, their wings rustling in the wind as they swoop by, lower and lower as Williams calls for them.
“C’mon guys, let’s go,” Williams yells. “Chop! Chop!”
A few birds begin drifting down, fluttering onto the roof of the coop. Using a long stick, Williams taps on the roof and gets them to go into an entrance perch near the top of the coop. He continues to do this until the last five birds finally drift down at dusk.
“Ya bums, it’s about time,” he growls.
The Hudson County Homing Pigeon Club headquarters in Hoboken was built around 1937 by club owners, using mostly donated materials and donated skills. The sturdy brick shot¬gun-style building sits among empty lots, on the edge of a high-rise development in Hoboken at 358 Newark Ave.
The club formed some time before then, probably in the years following World War I when members of the 1917-founded Pigeon Service of U.S. Army Signal Corps returned home. The Service’s headquarters were in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. Several current members trained messenger pigeons in the service during World War II.
On Friday nights during racing seasons, Tom Boccardo. president of the club, and his brother Frank, secretary/treasurer, generally come in the office before 7 p.m. to set everything up for registering the pigeons. A coffee pot is usually placed on a table near the door, doughnuts or alongside.
Behind the registration table, carrying basket crates are put in place with little blackboard slates attached to each. The males and females are placed in separate crates marked “Cocks” or “Hens.” Tallies are made of the number of pigeons put in each crate until they reach their 25-bird limit.
Frank. perpetually puffing on a cigar. sets up a ledger for the task of writing down the name of the racer. his birds’ band numbers, the loft from which the bird is flying and other information.
During the night of a New Jersey Concourse Association 300-mile Futurity Race in mid-September, George Woertz of Lyndhurst is among the first to stroll in carrying about a dozen birds in a portable case. The con-course, a coalition of 13 local clubs, benefits from the annual race from which registration costs go toward the upkeep of a truck used to ship the birds to racing sites.
Woertz goes through the routine of giving Frank the necessary information and taking his birds out one by one to have their qualifying leg bands checked and to be “counter marked” with a numbered rubber band and put in a shipping crate.
When all of the birds are marked and transferred, Woertz walks into another room carrying his racing clock for Tom to check it and set it, or “knock” it off, and then seal it so the time couldn’t be altered. Woertz fills out a registration form and takes it to the race secretary’s window where Mike Bonisisio of Staten Island adds up the entry’ fee, the shipping costs and a club charge. Depending on the race and the number of birds entered, the fee for just entering can come to as much as $60 or more.
After the business of the evening is over, Woertz settles into a table and talks to the other fliers and club members who sit at tables ribbing each other about their birds. wives and jobs. Some peer at the pink-hued screen of an old TV airing a baseball game. As the numbers of men come in after work or after registering birds in races held by neigh-boring clubs, the room fills with cigar, pipe and cigarette smoke and the sound of men greeting each other, talking and laughing.
Clocking The Years
It’s a busy night for Tom, Frank and Bonisisio — 1,676 birds from 151 lofts are entered by the time the last entry is taken, around 10:30. Nights like this are unusual, says Bonisisio, 71, a flier for the past 53 years.
“This has been the biggest club for years and we used to run the biggest races. Now?” he says shaking his head. “The young people aren’t interested.” He has grown daughters and a son. None of them took up pigeon racing. The story is the same among the most of the older men.
Midst the gray-haired men, Carl Czaplicki is the lone youthful pigeon racer from the area — and he belongs to the North Hudson club. A 19-year-old Pace University student from Jersey City, he had been helping his grandfather with his pigeons from age 6. When his grandfather died three years ago, he stuck with it, joining in the Cerbo/Manzo Loft in the North Hudson Club.
“Once you’re in it, it’s hard to get out of it.” Czapicki says. “It’s rough coming home from work (at a service station) and taking care of pigeons. A lot of kids I know have birds, but they don’t race them. They either don’t know about it or they don’t have the time to train them. It’s a lot of work. It teaches you a lot of responsibility.”
Larry Bolger 41, of Bayonne, is a father of five, ranging in age from 18 to 24. He has one married son interested in becoming a partner with him. The others still help in taking care of the birds.
“Most young guys don’t stick with it,” Bolger says. “It’s expensive and if he doesn’t win right away, he quits. “You know how kids are — they want everything on a silver platter.’
Vinnie Torre, 41, of Hoboken, remembers how he used to hang out with a neighbor at the club when he was about 10. He has been racing pigeons for 25 years, and has a reputation for consistently winning.
“They used to call me `Vinnie the Kid,’ ” he recalls.
“Now they call him ‘Salt and Pepper,’ ” jokes Bill Bianchi of North Bergen.
That night, the birds are loaded onto a trailer truck and driven to Charlottesville, Virginia. At 7 a.m., the birds are released. The fliers wait at their lofts for hours, straining to see their birds flying in. Once the birds begin to arrive, they clock them as quickly as possible. Within three hours of the first bird’s arrival, they must arrive back at the club¬house to have their clocks checked and the results tallied.
Aside from sacrificing entire Saturdays. the arrival of the birds is considered by many of the racers to be the most exciting part of racing, — unless something goes wrong.
Joe Coletta of Middletown, the “liberator” of the birds, says he gets blamed when the birds are late.
“It’s frustrating because you’ll wait there for two hours for that one minute when the bird comes in and you clock it,- says Coletta, a Jersey City native.
Some men have waited for hours for birds that never arrived because they were sick, lost, attacked by a hawk or otherwise killed. During a recent race, one of the fliers watched a bird fly toward the landing `board,” only to fly up to a telephone wire and sit there for an hour. Needless to say, he lost the race.
The rewards for winning are trophies, plaques and pride. And, for many a small cash award gained through quiet wagers. But the love of’ the sport is the best compensation, fliers say.
‘There’s many a wedding I’ve missed and many a party I’ve missed waiting for pigeons to come in because you can’t leave until they do,” says Steve Lemanowicz of Bayonne, a Hudson County Deputy Sheriff.
Like most fliers’ wives, Lemanowicz’s is under standing about his bird habit, even though there are times when it disrupts fam-ily life. She knew of his affinity for pigeons when she married him — he had been a member of the Pigeon Sig-nal Corps during World War 11. When the corps head-quarters were disbanded at Fort Monmouth in 1957, she went there to buy some pigeons at bargain prices and give them to him.
“She was the 150th person in line and when they got to her they said, ‘Sorry, no more pigeons.’ She began Prying and told them her husband was a disabled veteran and she wanted to bring him an egg or something. So they gave her an egg and she held it in her hands to keep it warm and brought it home. We put it in a pigeon nest in the coop. It was band number 9313, 1 flew that bird for five years and it came in second and third in many races. I had it for seven years.”
A Transported Sport
Pigeon racing began in Belgium around 1815, and it remains a national sport there, according to Jerseyan Jack Kligerman in the 1978 book, A Fancy for Pigeons. Kligerman, who recently returned to the United States after a year of study in China (where pigeons are regaining popularity) began his re¬search on the origins of the sport in a roundabout way —he went to Hoboken.
He wrote in his book about an auction of Belgian birds at the Hudson County club, where he made contact with some buyers who led him to other sources in Belgium. He traveled there to do further research. The Lehman College professor has studied pigeons in ancient and modern cultures, and he finds something to be true about the fliers in all of them.
“It’s mostly men who do it and it gives them a sense of community and fellowship,” Kligerman says. “My sense is of being male in America is that life is so work-oriented and family oriented, that it’s hard to develop human relationships, especially among men. The clubs and joint activities were really some¬thing very nourishing for them. They don’t have a lot of clubs like women do.”
In Belgium, it is a sport that bridges the upper and lower classes and even by-passes language boundaries, Kligerman writes in the book. Upper class gentry built large dovecotes —brick and stone houses for their birds.
In Hoboken and else-where around Manhattan, pigeon racing has primarily been a lower-to-middle class sport, Kligerman says. Or as one Hoboken racer put it, “Pigeons are the poor man’s race horse.” But there was at least one local exception.
Dr. Edgar Burke, once chief surgeon at Jersey City Medical Center, lived on top of the surgical building in a penthouse suite, and he kept pigeon coops there in the 1940s. The Holland native’s affinity for homing pigeons was immortalized in a photo in a book that is something of the bible on the birds, The Pigeon by Wendell M. Levi.
“He was a pigeon breeder and racer and was extremely successful at it,” recalls Dr. Roy Morrow, chief of surgery at Christ Hospital in Jersey City. He had trained under the late Dr. Burke. “He was an extremely intelligent person and gung ho about whatever he did — he was a hunter of ducks, an accomplished painter of wild flowers, he tied fishing flies and was something of an amateur archaeologist.”
Dr. Kenneth Judy, a retired surgeon who also worked with Burke recalls that Burke bred the birds for the pleasure of racing them and had a number of trophies and awards for racing as well as showing fancy pi¬geons in competition.
While Burke enjoyed the sport of pigeon racing, the blue collar racers seem to find their greatest satisfaction in the companionship of belonging to the clubs.
In Hudson County, the members gather at the club year-round, even when racing season is over, to play cards and talk. Instead of stag movies, they show “liberation” films of birds being released from trucks. They pass around battered magazines with pigeons adorning the covers. They send flowers to the families of members who die. They hold memorial races for members long gone. Most of them have known each other since they were children and their children know their children. They’re family.
Winging The Future
Frank Casella’s reputation for having a winning way with homers is enshrined on the walls of the pigeon club. Photos of pigeons are featured in four framed certificates for winning the 300-mile One-Bird Derby. His brother Marty, owner of Casella’s Restaurant in Hoboken, shares some of the titles with him in a race the Hudson County club has been famous for in flier circles. Entrants from all over the New York area and Connecticut enter their single chosen pigeon in hopes of winning.
This year Casella, 73, is racing birds in what will likely be his last season.
The semi-retired book-keeper says taking care of the birds has gotten to be too much for him, especially since his arthritis has been acting up. Besides, he needs to fix the roof of the building where his loft is located at First and Jackson streets, and it doesn’t seem worth it.
“I think I’m going to have to give it up for awhile,” Casella says wistfully. “I’d like to go to Florida and spend some time, maybe go to the dog races.”
“Moe” Cenimo, 75, of Bayonne, is active in the club as vice president and also is secretary/treasurer for the New Jersey Con-course Association. He’s won his share of races in the past 52 years, but he had to give up the sport. The retired mechanical machinist is still recovering from a heart by-pass operation and other ailments.
Tom Boccardo has been a member of the club since 1943, and president off and on for more than 25 years. He tried to retire from the club, but after his wife died eight years ago, his brother and friends urged him to come back and keep the club together. He hasn’t had birds for years, since he moved to North Arlington — the zoning laws are too strict.
“I would ride in the car and see the homers flying and wish I could fly them again,” he says. “But I just can’t go through the hassle of getting a permit.”
Even when neighbors don’t complain about the birds, starting a coop from scratch costs too much for most young people to make a go of it, the fliers say.
The birds generally cost hundreds of dollars apiece. Feed costs about $10 per 50-pound bag, which lasts only about two weeks for an average loft. Inoculating and worming the birds is an annual expense. Entering the birds in races can cost hundreds of dollars each year, not to mention the expense of transporting them a few hundred miles away, as most fliers do. for racing practice.
Despite the expense, some motivated fliers find a way to race pigeons.
Cristobal Rivera, a member of the Perth Amboy Club, says he began racing birds in 1983. The Spanish-speaking Rivera was recently laid off from his job at a cardboard box factory, but he still scrapes by enough to care for his 50 pigeons.
“I named the loft God’s Pigeons because they are beautiful birds he made and they belong to him,” Rivera says the night he enters the One-Bird Derby. He keeps his pigeons in a pick-up truck with a trailer outfitted as a loft.
But even with enthusiasts like Rivera, Prof. Kligerman considers pigeon racing a sport doomed by changes in society.
“I think it is a sport that is getting lost as we become more affluent with greater mobility,” Kligerman says. “You can’t take a long vacation if you have pigeons — someone who knows how to handle them must take care of them.”
Ten years ago when he wrote his book, Kligerman believes he recorded the end of the glory days of pigeon racing in America.
“I felt then I was writing about a group of people who were interesting and quirky, but vanishing.”
# # #
PIGEON RACING PRIMER
In a typical race. a few hundred pigeons are loaded on a truck. driven from 100 to 300 miles away, and released or “liberated” from specially built crates that are opened magnetically. The birds fly out and race each other home. Each of the home lofts are handicapped according to their distance from the liberation point. The distances are scientifically calculated using a U.S. government formula for airline distances in miles and decimals.
Each year in the spring. old birds are raced. in April through June and an auction of birds entered in special band races takes place after the season. Each fall, young birds hatched from the spring are raced from August through October. Some fliers prefer the fall because the birds are untried and unpredictable. Others prefer racing the old birds because they are more experienced.
PREPARING FOR A RACE
The first step is to mark the pigeons for the day’s race. Using a metal contraption mounted on a table. the fliers release an outstretched numbered rubber band onto each bird’s leg. Metal bands qualifying the birds for club or association races must be purchased and placed on the young bird’s leg by the time they are six to 10 days old —before their legs have grown too big.
Secondly, fliers set or “knock off” their special racing clocks every quarter hour. The clocks are all synchronized with a wall clock in the club so the return times for the birds will be accurate. After the clocks are set, a club official checks the time and its interior chambers before wiring it shut and sealing the wire. If the seal has been tampered with, the flier is disqualified from the race. The complicated system prevents cheating.
CLOCKING A RACE
To time a bird after it returns to the home loft, fliers retrieve the rubber band from its leg, put it in an aluminum capsule and drop the capsule into a slot in the racing clock. Then they turn a key and stamp the time in hours, minutes and seconds on a ribbon of paper inside. The key also turns a. metal disk that holding the capsule. It revolves and clicks an empty chamber into place under the slot — resetting it for the return of another bird. Rushing to stamp the time is critical because races are often won by a matter of seconds. That’s why instead of saving “Good Luck.” to each other before a race, fliers say “Get a good time.”
# # #
Cooped Up By Strict Laws
Gentrification and pigeon racing don’t mix, say Hudson County fliers, who are finding it more demanding to keep a. coop as the old neighborhoods change, They say their new upscale neighbors are more apt to complain about the birds.
in Jersey City, there has been a law since 1930 requiring licensing of fowl that was never enforced until Last year when the health department began getting complaints, says Louis Manzo, director. The city council decided to increase the annual permit cost from $1. to $25 to cover inspection expenses.
To keep a coop, pigeon owners are supposed to have a petition favoring them from the neighbors, in a square block area and keep the birds at least 25 feet from surrounding homes. They are limited to 50 birds and required to keep the cages clean.
“So far we’ve issued a grand total of one,” Manzo says.
For all intents and purposes, the department doesn’t pursue pigeon keepers who don’t buy permits. Manzo says most of the complaints have been about neighbors who keep street pigeons as pets or chickens and ducks in their yards.
In Hoboken, the law is similar, though it requires pigeon keepers to place their coops 50 feet away from habitations. The health department received one com-plaint in 1983, but the owner of the loft wasn’t cited.
“As far as we were concerned. the coop was very clean and better than the areas where wild pigeons are,” says Pat Mitten, health officer.
The owner’s petition was in his favor, also.
— Toni Giovanetti