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Rats with Wings: A Love Story

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From the film Keep ‘Em Flying by Renee Fraser and Ann Carol Grossman.© Ann Carol Grossman.From the film Keep ‘Em Flying by Renee Fraser and Ann Carol Grossman.
© Ann Carol Grossman.

Earlier this week, the view from my kitchen window in Brooklyn yielded a peculiar sight: spread across the rooftop of the building next door were rows upon rows of neatly arranged bread chunks. As a group of pigeons descended to claim their meal, I came to realize that my dear neighbor belongs to a subset of New Yorkers who enjoy the company of pigeons. From the folks who scatter birdseed in the park to devoted pigeon racers, pop-cultural enthusiasts and journalists writing about pigeons, the scavenging birds that most urbanites view with indifference, annoyance, or outright hostility (ever heard the moniker “rats with wings”?) have garnered a diverse league of appreciators. Ever a champion of maligned and under-appreciated species, I am charmed to report that New York pigeons have been the subject of two short documentary films in the Reserve Film and Video Collection.

Pigeons (1967) and Keep ‘Em Flying (1981) are loving odes not just to the creatures themselves, but to the diminishing generations of people who have spent their lives raising pigeons and flying them from tenement rooftops across the city. In both documentaries, we hear from New Yorkers for whom pigeons represent not only the stubborn survival of wildlife in the urban environment, but also transcendence of violence, crime and poverty on the gritty streets. For many men coming of age in high-crime neighborhoods, tending to pigeons from their rooftop coops offers a literal and figurative means of escape from the hardships of life at street-level. Homing pigeons possess the remarkable ability to navigate across great distances to find their ways home. In a race, pigeon keepers mingle the flocks that they have nurtured and trained, setting them free miles away from their coops. With great patience, the racers return to their roofs to wait for their birds, taking stock of any lost or gained in flight. No matter what your feelings are towards pigeon racing as a sport, there is a poignant relationship between pigeons and the (predominantly) working-class men who raise them that is captured beautifully in the films. If it can fairly be stated that pigeon keeping is a dying culture in the new millennium, Pigeons and Keep ‘Em Flying are testaments to the fact that pigeons have had more to contribute to New York City’s social and cultural fabric than simply consuming our trash.

From the film Keep ‘Em Flying by Renee Fraser and Ann Carol Grossman.© Ann Carol Grossman.From the film Keep ‘Em Flying by Renee Fraser and Ann Carol Grossman.
© Ann Carol Grossman.

Of course, pigeons aren’t the only bird species in the city, nor are they the only ones that can be found rummaging through our leftover lunch. In Binocular Vision (1988), avid bird watchers congregate across New York City from the Brooklyn Garbage Dump to more picturesque settings like Central Park and Jones Beach to participate in the National Audubon Society’s annual bird census. The thriving bird populations at Jamaica Bay Bird Sanctuary and Ellis Island are also just some of The Other New Yorkers (1988) (of mammalian, avian and insect origins) profiled in a documentary version of Gerald and Lee Durrell’s book, The Amateur Naturalist. If you would like to partake in some urban bird watching from the comfort of our screening room, please call the Reserve Film and Video Collection at (212) 870-1741. All films must be requested at least one week in advance.

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