Keeping the Sport of Pigeon Racing Alive Along the Gold Coast Pigeon Racing: The Fading Glory of a Waterfront Sport

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.

Flocking Together

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.”

Cristobal Rivera with a homing pigeon.
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.

The registration table for a 300 mile race.

“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.”