Posts Tagged ‘Aaron Wojack’

Undiscarded: Stories of New York, Episode 4 (Pigeon Tags)

If you look closely in small corners of the museum, you can find hidden and not-so-hidden birds tucked away in the Reliquary’s corners and vitrines (a word I frequently use now that I have a museum pod—thx Jacob Ford). They have been a part of the museum since its early days in 2002 when it was a window display on Havermayer Street, before moving to its permanent space on Metropolitan Avenue. In fact, Dave Herman, founder of the Reliquary, said they had a policy to have at least one chenille bird as a decoration in every display.

Last year, Jacob curated an entire exhibition at the Reliquary on the birds, people, and bird people of the city:

BIRD SHOW documents the ways humans & birds notice, help, and threaten each other in this city we share.

Taxonified incorrectly as science fair, fairly as art show, but most specifically as nature exhibition, BIRD SHOW looks at people watching birds, and the birds staring back.

BIRD SHOW introductory text

While brainstorming with Jacob for artifacts for this season, nothing made more sense than to pay homage to the Reliquary’s ornithophilic tendencies. And we did so by honoring one of the most recognizable and famous NYC creatures – not the infamous one known for dragging pizza through the subways, but the Columba livia, also known as the humble pigeon.

The obvious choice for a guest was Gabriel Willow, a naturalist, environmental educator, ecological tour guide in NYC, and ALSO a DJ & artist. He joined us to discuss our episode’s artifact: the pigeon tags. In addition to having collaborated with the Lincoln Center and Morgan Library, he teaches classes and offers programs, some of which are free (info here). Appropriately dressed in pigeon attire, as you can see, I definitely felt my feelings change towards the pigeon as I learned that some of New York’s OG birds may have originated in Pakistan and Africa before being brought over as pets by European immigrants. We mentioned some famous pigeon fanciers in the show (Mike Tyson, Bert, Nikola Tesla, and the fictional Terry Malloy played by Marlon Brando, again Bert because he’s the best), but here are some more I found in pigeonpedia who might surprise you…

As we mention in the episode, these non-native species were once used as food but eventually became a popular hobby in old-time New York. Originating with European immigration, urban birdkeeping thrived on rooftops from the 1930s through the 1950s, with pigeon fanciers often keeping hundreds of birds at a time. Thus, the pigeon registration tags were introduced. There was a time when you couldn’t walk down certain neighborhoods in the city without seeing flocks of pigeons flying overhead.
I found these awesome pictures in an older article from Messy Nessy Chic about the New York subculture of rooftop pigeons. Photographer Aaron Wojack was kind enough to let me use his GORGEOUS photos in this post.

Gentrification, rising costs of keeping pigeons, and stringent regulations have phased out this old pastime, leaving only a small dedicated group of New Yorkers. It started mainly with white immigrants back in the heyday and was passed along to communities of color towards the end of the 20th century. They New York Times published an article about the crossing of racial lines & pigeon fanciers. It’s estimated that there may be only 50 coops left now, down from thousands at one point.

Pigeon keeping and pigeons themselves have captured the imagination, inspiring countless article, art and books. In fact, Mo Willems’ famous pigeon, a childhood favorite of my kids, just turned 20. Though coop culture is dying, there is no shortage of NYC’s favorite feathered species. Estimates range from around half a million to one pigeon per person, which would mean approximately 9 million pigeons in the city. I guess by now, they belong here just as much as we do.

Drawings of extinct NYC birds, and photos of US Airways Flight 1549, from BIRD SHOW exhibition at the City Reliquary
BIRD SHOW mid-installation, featuring Gabriel Willow’s drawings of extinct birds over modern-day photographs: Ecolegiac

Guest info: Gabriel Willow, who is on Instagram.

Photos: Aaron Wojack, also on Instagram with pigeons

Research & Resources:

Gabriel has a cool hat. Jacob is wearing a pigeon head mask by Archie McPhee.
Gabriel Willow & Jacob Ford in their natural habitat: Wild Bird Fund’s Flocktail 2019

More episodes of Undiscarded await you