On a recent Thursday, James Muir stood on the roof of his family home in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn. A dozen or so of his thoroughbred homing pigeons circled above, just departed from the coop where Muir and his father have kept them his entire life. “I’m the last man standing,” Muir says. “It’s dwindled down. It’s dying. When I was a kid, a lot of guys flew. Everybody kept racing pigeons. You get about 1,000 birds in a contest now. Back in the day, you’d get 10,000 pigeons in a race.”
The few hundred stateside pigeon racing clubs are dwindling. Records kept with the American Pigeon Racing Union show a decline in the number of clubs reporting results: 356 organizations reported race results in 2010; by 2015, only 318 were reporting. According to that registry, though the number of birds in a given race fluctuates, the number of lofts (the “coops” where pigeons live and breed) contributing to races dropped dramatically. Between 2010 and 2015, one portion of the New England Open, flying from Lyons, New York, went from 123 to 105 lofts contributing birds. As a mile-marker of this era, 87-year-old pigeon racer Frank Viola, the benefactor of a lucrative race named for him, died in 2007. Viola also lent his name to the Coney Island racing club Muir is part of.
“If we don’t get more people involved,” Muir says. “I think we’re on the road to seeing this, unfortunately, die out. At 39, I’m a dinosaur doing this.”
Muir is not only the keeper, but the nutritionist, veterinarian, and coach. He raises champion birds: corky, shaped like sailboats, with the appearance of darts. When they’re healthy, the racing pigeons feel like silk balloons. There are other varieties, too: rollers, who do tricks; chicos, who coax the homers back to base; tipplers, bred to fly 22 hours on the wing. “We call that flying to the pins, when they’re so high up they look like pinheads. The birds are up in the cleaners—so high you don’t see them anymore.” Muir’s birds routinely fly 500 or more miles. All have flown back to Brooklyn from Ohio, where Viola’s race began.
Muir and his father, Jim, drive through South Brooklyn. Jim, a Scottish immigrant, handed pigeon racing down to his son, a first-generation American. It’s a sport still massively popular in Europe, a mechanism of tradition. In China, the pigeons are picking up speed for their lucrative potential, where people bet on the birds like horses. In Brooklyn, Muir is a third-generation keeper. The father and son cruise their neighborhood in Muir’s Volkswagen, ticking off dozens of rooftops and houses where coops used to be—they remember a pigeon loft on nearly every block.
“The old-timers are dying off,” Jim says. “The kids are not into it—too busy with their computers and cellphones and other technology. The birds are all heart. And all they want to do is go home. But the thing is, to keep them that way, you have to be very dedicated. The kids just don’t have the patience.”
Selective breeding processes and trait isolation have remained largely unchanged for the last 100 years; Muir has logbooks of individual traits going back eight generations of birds. He tells of one bird, named The Highway Man, who would race up and down the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, regularly pacing cars at the 60-mile-per-hour mark.
Technology has progressed slightly, increasing the accuracy and ease of racing. GPS or RFID chips scan automatically, monitoring the pigeons on their routes home. The speed of each bird is averaged and compared against the others, and the fastest bird wins the race. Champion birds can make it back to their lofts, from 500 or 600 miles, within a day.
Scientists still debate how homing pigeons actually get home. A 2013 Journal of Experimental Biology suggested that pigeons navigate by “infrasound,” ultra-low frequencies created by ocean waves and transmitted for miles. Another 2013 study in Biogeosciences argued the pigeon’s extraordinary sense of smell helped keep their compass aligned. It was the discovery that pigeons might sense disturbances in gravitational pull that led researchers to argue pigeons possess gyroscopic attributes. This helped to account for how pigeons are able to orient themselves in relation to a spatial map in their heads, as demonstrated by researchers at the University of Zurich.
But one of the most widely accepted theories is that pigeons take cues from Earth’s magnetic field, as well as the sun. A 2007 paper suggested that iron-rich elements of the pigeon’s beak acted as a magnetometer. But a 2012 study refuted the long-held claim, when scientists did not find the magnetic nerves they were expecting in the beaks of pigeons.
“The truth is, nobody knows how they do it,” Muir says. “They have such a great love for home. I allow them to be who they are. I try and figure out their personalities and what makes them want to be here. And from my understanding, it’s a love of home.”
Muir’s Dyker Heights loft holds about 60 pigeons in three sections: young birds, old birds, and breeders. On race day, the birds get a fattier feed, heavy on corn; day-to-day, the feed is seedier, lighter. Otherwise, the racers get probiotics and brewer’s yeast, to help with digestion. Muir feeds them garlic (which acts as an antiviral) and cinnamon (which acts as an antibacterial).
“I bathe them in Epsom salt every other day,” Muir says. “I don’t even bathe in Epsom salt.”
The “rats of the sky” hitched to the curb and shitting on statues—they live for less than two years. A few weeks ago, Muir lost a satinette pigeon that was 17 years old. He says race birds, if they’re taken care of, can live to 25 years.
“It’s spiritual, right?” Muir says. “The way you see the world, because you have this interaction every day with nature, you understand, you get it. I think people now really, really detach themselves from reality. There’s a good thing that comes out of technology but there’s also a bad thing because there’s no interacting with nature anymore, right?”
He continues, “We don’t realize our own mortality. I’ll have pigeons until I’m dead.”