The Decentralized Pigeon-Flying Game of New York City
In 2017 I became dangerously obsessed with blockchain and pigeons.
Some days it felt like my brain was broken because I couldn’t do anything but read, think, and watch videos about cryptocurrencies or pigeons.
Many people were skeptical of my new interests.
“Pigeons are just rats with wings!” some friends said. “They spread disease!”
I’ve heard all this FUD before. The “rats with wings” phrase was popularized by the 1980 movie “Stardust Memories”, directed by accused child molester Woody Allen. The belief that pigeons spread disease is a lie spread by pest control companies who want to sell poisons like Avitrol.
In fact, as shown in this paper from 1965, the body temperature of pigeons averages about 108°F (43°C), making it difficult for their pathogens to survive in the human body and making little feet feel warm to the touch!
Many people are horrified by pigeon-directed cruelty like Avitrol and live pigeon shoots, but pigeons are one of the four species that can be killed without restriction under federal law. You can shoot tame pigeons as they’re ejected from a box, and that’s perfectly fine legally. The three other unprotected species are sparrows, starlings, and nutria.
Pigeons exist in this legal gray area because they’re a non-native species. Domesticated pigeons were brought to North America hundreds of years ago, but eventually pigeons were no longer popular as either food, pets, or messengers. The birds you see on the streets are the feral descendants of these beloved pet, messenger, or food birds. They’re more like street cats than wild animals.
The bond between man and pigeon is ancient. So, if someone asks me, why do you like pigeons? I often am tempted to reply: why don’t you like pigeons? They are one of our partner-species!
I love how pigeons are sensitive enough to navigate using earth’s magnetic field and recognize paintings by Picasso but are also stoic enough to fly hundreds of miles to get home and digest New York City garbage.
I think most people are vaguely aware that pigeons are kept in rooftop coops in New York City, perhaps thanks to the lovely “Pigeon Man” episode of Hey Arnold!
But, my pigeon obsession was not sparked by these local pigeon men. Instead, it began with an Instagram post sent to me by my friend Alina.
The video, uploaded by Turkish pigeon fancier @pigeon_mardin, shows a pigeon couple flying together above a field. @pigeon_mardin is a popular Pigeon Instagram account. Pigeon Instagram is quite large, mainly populated by men from Pakistan, India, Belgium, Iran, and other Middle Eastern or European countries. There’s a smaller American Pigeon Instagram centered around pigeon and dove rescue, but I didn’t find it until later.
I enjoy Pigeon Instagram very much.
This spring, another video had a big impact on me: “How to pet a pigeon” by Chetan Kothari on YouTube.
This video made me realize that I could interact with the pigeons in the park by my office.
I ordered some seed from Amazon and followed the instructions in the video. I was delighted when after just a few days, I was able to pet a pigeon!
Interacting with pigeons in the park was very rewarding. The “homing” orientation of pigeons meant that I saw the same birds every day, and began to develop a relationship with each of them individually.
One pigeon stood out: a light grey bird with green neck feathers that I came to call “my favorite”. They were the first pigeon to fly up on the park bench, and the first to perch on my hand to eat. They were uninterested in fighting with the more dominant birds on the ground but keen to eat as many seeds as possible.
This summer and fall, I enjoyed hanging out with “my favorite” and other birds in the flock like “shitbird” and “squishfoot”. But early this winter, “my favorite” suddenly began to behave strangely, twisting their neck and having trouble pecking at seeds. I recognized these behaviors as symptoms of the common disease Pigeon Paramyxovirus.
I hoped that “my favorite” would stabilize, but after just a few days they were so weak and confused that I was able to simply guide them into a banker’s box and bring them home.
The next few weeks were very difficult. Every day, “my favorite” got a little bit worse, first losing the ability to feed themselves, then losing the ability to stand, and then beginning to twitch involuntarily. I stayed home to hand-feed and hydrate “my favorite”, who I began to call Snowflake. I obsessively researched pigeon disease and treatment, worried that I was fucking up. I was afraid to bring Snowflake to a local wildlife rescue center, as they’d almost certainly be euthanized, given that the disease is extremely contagious. Every day I’d convince myself that Snowflake was showing signs of improvement, or find a hopeful story online.
At the same time, I was working on a blockchain-related project. Spending all my time worrying that I might be interfering with nature or abetting the development of a global greed-virus started to get to me.
Around the time I finally figured out the blockchain project, it became clear to me that Snowflake was probably not going to get better. They were having horrible seizures. I brought them to visit the park that was once their home, and then to a wildlife rescue center in Manhattan.
In the weeks that followed, I tried to think about how I could use my new pigeon-care skills to help other birds, or make pigeons a bigger part of my life. I learned more about the people who keep pigeons on their roofs, and started to make serious plans to become one of them.
For many rooftop pigeon keepers in New York, keeping pigeons is a game, a game quite different from pigeon racing or breeding for show. I learned that pigeon keepers release their flocks during the day, and the birds fly out and intermix with other neighboring flocks, communicating via flight. The pigeon keepers hope that all the birds will come home in the evening, along with birds from a neighboring flock. Hundreds of birds can be gained or lost in a day, and birds can be held hostage or ransomed back to their owners.
The structure of this game really blows my mind. The game functions without any organizing authority, and is a form of competitive caretaking. It doesn’t even have a canonical name: it’s known alternatively as pigeon flying, pigeon turning, the pigeon wars. The “rules” are constantly being redefined between individual participants, who freely enter and leave the game, perhaps meeting at hubs like “Pigeons on Broadway”, a pet shop with hundreds of pigeons in the back.
I hope that this peer-to-peer game ultimately results in happy pigeons and people. I enjoy imagining a future where many more people compete to attract and care for flocks of birds, or engage in similar activities. This vision helped me in the late weeks of 2017.