Dig if you will a new City Council bill, one that is ruffling feathers among businesses that supply doves and white pigeons for release, often during weddings or funerals.
Councilmembers Carlina Rivera, Lynn Schulman and Shaun Abreu last week introduced legislation to ban the commercial release of birds. The law would make it illegal for individuals to set birds flying for a fee, or to purchase or keep them to do so.
The goal, Rivera told THE CITY, is to clip the wings of a cottage industry that profits from having white pigeons, or “doves” — which are also covered under the proposed legislation — fly out of cages and into the sky.
A more restrictive law banning the import, sale or ownership of pigeons already exists in Chicago. But no similar regulation exists in other big cities including New York, where a niche pigeon subculture has drawn obsessive fanciers and competitive bird racers for decades, with clubs going back to at least as far back as the late 19th century.
“These bird releases — they’re just a harmful and cruel way to mark weddings, gender reveals and memorial services,” said Rivera, who represents an area that includes Madison Square Park, where a white pigeon that had been colored pink died this year, likely due to inhaling toxic fumes from the dye, not long after it was set free at a gender reveal party.
“We just feel it’s unnecessary — things can go terribly wrong.”
Animal rights activists are rallying behind the bill. President Allie Taylor of Voters For Animal Rights said these domesticated birds too often die after they are uncaged — a tradition she noted is again in vogue because of social media.
“These birds just stare around looking completely confused and not sure where to go,” Taylor said, referring to an incident in Brooklyn Bridge Park last spring, when 13 pigeons took flight at a wedding and subsequently had to be rescued by the nonprofit group Wild Bird Fund.
Some of those birds were “ungainly” king pigeons that do not fly well because they’re typically raised as food, said Wild Bird Fund spokesperson Catherina Quayle, while others were banded homing pigeons whose instincts supposedly guide them home, weather and predators permitting.
Because New York State and City do not require owners to register or license birds, it is difficult to even estimate how many doves and pigeons are being held for these symbolic affairs, Taylor said. The Wild Bird Fund, which is based in New York City and calls itself “NYC’s only wildlife rehabilitation and education center,” typically receives about 80 pigeons a year including some that are showing signs of neglect, illness or injury, according to Quayle.
Many other pigeons are taken under the wings of volunteer rescuers like Jessica Zafonte, who spends hours each week tending to birds in addition to her job as a patent lawyer, and who runs a group called They All Want to Live that places rescues in homes where they are treated and cared for.
“We’ve all probably seen a white pigeon trying to survive within a flock of regular pigeons in parks and just thought, ‘Oh, look how pretty — that one’s white,’” said Zafonte, who added that most gray pigeons on city streets are descendants of pets in Europe who have since gone feral.
“But people don’t realize they’re dumped there.”
‘The Name of the Game’
Breeders and fanciers who supply these birds for ceremonies, however, say they are by no means abandoned but know through instinct and training to fly home.
Anthony of the southern Brooklyn-based release service Doves of Love, for one, says he trained his 62 pairs of birds to return to the roof of his home in Bay Ridge.
They can do that, said Anthony, who declined to provide his last name, because they are not doves at all but white homing pigeons, which have long been popular for their racing skills.
Once a pigeon is born, it takes “four weeks — that’s it. Then it’s time to see what you got. Then you start by chasing them with a big garbage bag,” said Anthony, 73, who spoke to THE CITY last Friday about how he trains his birds as he climbed a ladder up to the roof in the record-level rain to feed them. “Every day you’re gonna do that,” and by the time they’re eight to 10 weeks old, “they start disappearing for an hour, hour and a half, and they come back home.”
But on rainy days like Friday, Anthony doesn’t let his birds take off from the three, semi-indoor coops he keeps on the roof. They don’t know where to go when it rains or when it’s dark, he said, so he doesn’t do gigs at night or in foul weather.
He has been raising pigeons since he was 8 years old, when pigeon racing was popular and the birds were a favorite kept animal among his Southern Brooklyn neighbors.
“In those days, on one block, there were six pigeon coops,” Anthony recalled of the late 1950s. As a kid he would volunteer to clean the coops in the neighborhood so he could stay on the roof with the pigeons. He remembered a day in his childhood when a neighbor had let him pick out two pairs of the birds from his coop and gifted them to him because he thought Anthony “had a good eye for pigeons.”
“So I took those birds and I raised like six or eight out of them. And then I started flying them. And then from that it was 20, 30, 40,” said Anthony, who still enjoys racing pigeons even though he calls it a “dying sport.”
These days, Anthony continues to travel the country with his pigeons to race them, and rents them out for ceremonial releases two pairs at a time, for $250 to $300 depending on the distance his birds have to fly home. And on sunny days, he likes hanging out with them on the roof of his house, which he refers to as “Anthony’s beach.”
But a population of urban raptors have returned to the city in recent decades, according to New York City Audubon. Zafonte, the bird rescuer, said many pigeons used for show get snatched up by predators like hawks and falcons on the way home because their white coats make them easy targets.
Anthony, who loses about a dozen to 20 of his birds a year to the wild, said it had been “all over the news” that the city is responsible for releasing hawks and falcons to hunt down the birds sometimes demeaned as rats with wings. (Indeed, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey at one point employed falcons to chase off pigeons and geese and gulls on airport runways, and other municipalities have also used birds of prey that way.)
“You lose them in training, you lose them in races. That’s the name of the game — you can’t feel bad,” Anthony said. But he is less sanguine about some of the “new guys” who have joined the pigeon scene, who he said let pigeons fly around with avian flu and are otherwise careless about the health of their flocks.
These days, Anthony said he supports himself with a produce wholesale business and considers his dove service a hobby to cover some of the $2,600 a month he spends on feed and medication for his flock.
“Why would the City Council put something like that out? I don’t understand,” Anthony said, referring to the bill introduced last week. “You can’t make no money from this … it’s just a hobby — you don’t get nothing out of this but aggravation.”
‘Allowing Her Soul to Be Free’
Teresa De Jesus tends to associate white pigeons with solace and catharsis.
While she said her clients at Frank R. Barone Funeral Home in East Flatbush don’t ask for doves “very often,” the family service coordinator there told THE CITY that she herself had white pigeons released at her mother’s funeral six years ago.
“It’s kind of symbolizing that this person is now free — free from the pain, free from the suffering, free from the fight.” said De Jesus. “It was three birds, and it was the Holy Trinity. So the kids open the basket, and the birds fly out, and it’s just really the symbolism of allowing her soul to be free.”
These ceremonial rituals speak especially to families who are grieving sudden deaths or those who pass away after drawn-out medical treatments, De Jesus said. Her mother had suffered from an autoimmune disease that gnawed away at her health for about a year before she passed away, she explained, and seeing the birds head for the sky offered a sense of closure for her and her family — especially young children struggling to understand the meaning of death.
“They were able to open the basket and we can explain it to them,” she said. “This is for Ma’s soul to be released — just trying to help them transition to the idea that she wouldn’t be here either.”
De Jesus said she sympathized with the animal activism around the new Council bill, but also was told by the vendors she works with that their birds do return home and aren’t let off in colder months or inclement weather.
Rescuers and activists like Zafonte, however, believe these birds are too often destined for tragic fates, and urged those who participate in releases to consider:
“Well, wait, what are the repercussions of this going to be like? What’s going to happen to this animal in a day or in a week?”