Why an artist is outfitting live pigeons with LED lights

A live performance art piece will feature flocks of pigeons, gliding over New York City to celebrate the city's rich pigeon-keeping history. 

Joshua Astor/AP
Pigeons take off from rooftop pigeon coops in the Brooklyn borough of New York. This spring, Brooklyn artist Duke Riley will release 2,000 homing pigeon outfitted with LED lights in a tribute to the dwindling culture of pigeon-keeping.

Pigeon-keeping is not what it used to be.

Concerned by the decline of pigeon-keeping culture in the United States, public art promoter Creative Time is presenting a feathery tribute to pigeons in the night sky of New York City. Artist Duke Riley of Brooklyn has designed a performance art piece with 2,000 homing pigeons trained to fly over the East River in a synchronized aerobatic display.

The artist selected the Brooklyn Navy Yard for the pigeon's night-time release because it was once the country's largest base for carrier pigeons. In addition to their famous role as message carriers during the World Wars, pigeons demonstrated "superior search rate capacity" for the US Navy on rescue missions, as Rachel Dickenson once wrote in an essay for the Monitor.

During Project Sea Hunt in the late 1970s and early '80s, the Navy found that pigeons flying over the ocean in a helicopter could successfully spot a life jacket 90 percent of the time, compared to a human success rate of just 38 percent. 

New York City also has a rich civilian history of pigeon-keeping, as immigrants from Italy, Belgium, and Germany brought the practice to the city's boroughs, where it became the favored hobby of many blue-collar men.

"I learned it from my grandfather," Paul Wohlfarth, whose family has been raising pigeons in Queens for three generations, told the Associated Press. "It gets in your blood. You go up there, you forget your problems. You watch the pigeons fly."

Pigeon-keeping has declined with the city's gentrification, and pigeon keepers who numbered in the thousands in the '40s, '50s, and '60s have dwindled to just 100.

"Years ago there was pigeon coops on every roof," Mr. Wohlfarth told AP.

Pigeon enthusiasts breed and tag the birds, care for them in rooftop coops, and release them at the same time as their neighbors. When the pigeons fly home with their trademark homing abilities, a few new birds enter the coop, and the breeder retags the new recruits and adds them to his coop.

"You can come in and brag about how you caught X number of pigeons off of somebody else," Colin Jerolmack, a professor of sociology and environmental studies at New York University who wrote a book about New York pigeon keepers, told AP. "That's a huge part of the allure."

This spring, flocks of tagged pigeons will again fly over the city's boroughs. The "Fly by Night" artists plan to fit each pigeon with a leg band containing a remote-controlled LED light. Pigeons will leave the coop at dusk for 30 minutes to "elegantly twirl, swoop, and glide over the East River skyline," according to the event page, and 18 separate artistic events are planned on weekends throughout May and June, weather permitting. 

"The birds will be outfitted with tiny LEDs, illuminating the sky in a transcendent union of public art and nature," according to the event page.

Free tickets are already booked for the event, called "Fly by Night," but a limited number will be released to interested pigeon-viewers who enter a waiting list. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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