Pigeon Mumblers

By Finn, Maria | Chicago Review, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Pigeon Mumblers


Finn, Maria, Chicago Review


Beyond the trees with last year's plastic bags gnarled in their bare branches, and above the still factories on a gray winter evening, several flocks of pigeons flew into the sky. They curved on the slight breeze, then rose over the water towers. Other flocks moved further away into the distance until they were just glances of white, sparks of teal blue, and glints of burned orange. The birds ascended into a crescendo above the city skyline then dipped back down and orchestrated a synchronized return to the buildings they had left. On each of these tar-brushed rooftops stood solitary old men, brandishing long poles at their flocks of pigeons and directing them back into their pens for the night.

"Oh, yeah," my neighbor Frankie Tuomey told me. "Those guys on the rooftops are pigeon mumblers, and they're crazy. I used to be one."

"Yeah," another neighbor, Paul "Dukey" Capobianco said. "Everyone used to do it, every rooftop on the block had pigeons."

Weather permitting, Frankie and Paul are outside, monitoring the people passing by the corner of Union Avenue and North Eleventh Street. Behind them a new apartment complex is building an addition. Down the street, an old paint factory is being demolished. Garbage trucks on their way to the growing USA Waste sites along the East River downshift at the lights, then drive by. Frankie and Paul sit on the bench with their arms crossed over their chests, legs spread, in a way that conveys a sense of propriety earned from living their entire lives on the north side of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Frankie layers on lots of jackets so he won't get sick, then complains about being too hot. Paul talks tough, out the side of his mouth, but now wears very thick glasses that magnify his eyes and give him a soft edge. They're out there everyday, weather permitting, on this corner busy with car and foot traffic, sitting and watching as things pass by.

"Now, with the pigeons what you do is fly them in a circle, further and further out," Paul said. "You fly them so they's next to the other guy's, so some of his pigeons join your flock. See then you got a bigger flock, his is smaller. You can sell 'em back to the guy, or you can trade 'em for feed, or you keep 'em."

"A little like marbles?" I asked.

"Nothing like marbles," Frankie said. "Some of these guys, like Ralphie the Bug over there, played catch-kill."

"Definitely not marbles," Paul said. He shook his head and continued. "Ralphie killed one of Charlie the Horse's birds, and so Charlie the Horse starts playing catch-kill."

"Yeah," Frankie said. "He'd catch your pigeon, hold it up so's you could see it, yell, 'Hey, this your bird?,' then, while you're looking over, he bites its head off, then throws it on the ground. Then there was Anthony, he was a crybaby. If you caught one of his, he'd come begging for his bird back."

"Don't forget Junior," Paul added. "Junior would wait until everyone brought their pigeons in before he'd fly his, scared he'd lose 'em."

Both men chuckled, unfolded their arms, then re-crossed them. When I asked why they didn't do it any longer, they shrugged, muttered about getting old. Then I asked them why it's called mumbling.

"Cause of how you have to talk to your birds," Frankie said. "You gotta mumble to them."

"You want to know about pigeons?" Paul asked. "Go see Carmine Ruphrano, he's got the biggest coop around."

All pigeons belong to the same species, columba livia, the rock pigeon, sometimes called the rock dove. The dove became a symbol of love around 4500 B.C. in the Middle East because they kept the same mate and procreated frequently. It wasn't until the turn of this century that pigeons began roosting in cities in such huge numbers. This proliferation was due to perishable food being discarded, and people feeding them. Because of their rapid urban propagation, they became associated with the spread of disease, and are not commonly referred to as doves, but as "rats with wings. …

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