For over a decade, helicopter pilots practiced their landings on the deck of the US Navy’s Baylander IX-514. Today, the now decommissioned and privately owned ship is serving as home base to flying creatures of another kind: pigeons. And like the men who steered those metal machines, the 2,000 domesticated birds currently living on board have undergone training, albeit as messengers on night missions.
The floating roost, currently docked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, sets the stage for “Fly By Night,” a performance created by artist Duke Riley and commissioned by Creative Time that sees the flock flying over the shipyard every weekend from May through mid-June. With LED bulbs attached to the ID bands that are strapped on their ankles, the birds, signaled by trainers, illuminate the darkening sky just as the city’s buildings flick on their lights.
Riley has been working since last July to realize “Fly By Night,” and hype has been steadily building over the past few months. I went into a recent performance wondering if it would be pure spectacle, but it did not disappoint — far from doing so, it left me stunned. Simply put, the 30 minutes of pigeons swooping, gliding, and turning in the air was easily one of the most hypnotizing sights I’ve seen this year.
It unfolded like a ballet: The dancers shuffled around on the open-air stage — the roof of the coops — ruffling their feathers as if warming up. A recording of pigeons, gurgling through large speakers, provided the pre-show music. Like conductors, three handlers clothed in black (Riley among them) appeared atop the Baylander with batons in hand — long bamboo poles with black trash bags tied to them. Instead of curtains rising, the porthole-like doors to the interiors of the specially designed coops were covered. Then, silence — pierced by the clanging of a bell, a succession of whistles, and the raising of the shadowy flags. The flock flew, scattering white dots into the evening sky.
It’s jarring to watch a usually quotidian scene suddenly transform into one so unforgettable. The birds, dividing themselves into smaller convoys, theoretically by breed, circled the area, crisscrossing other groups to create layered patches of light. They became an avian whirlpool for a moment when flocks came together, their fast-flapping wings creating a soft whooshing sound that mingled with their cooing. When they drew apart, they resembled giant gnat clouds or windswept paper fragments. And the LED lights (on most, but not all of them) spread moving constellations across the sky; if not for the observable flashes of black, white, brown, and gray that created a subtle patchwork, the sight would have seemed like a gathering of rogue shooting stars.
As Riley explained, the birds are pretty much flying as they wish; he compared the flag waving and whistling to the signals one gives to a dog when playing fetch — they’re essentially indicators to start and stop flying. My favorite pigeons were the ones that gracefully traced figure eights, abruptly changing direction as if blown by a sudden gust of wind. But I also liked the ones that exercised artistic license, breaching the group choreography to startle audience members. At the end, with a shriek of whistles, they all gradually returned home, and a sudden blast of dancehall flavor from Sister Nancy’s “Pegion Rock” jolted our attention away from the heavens and back to reality.
Part of why Riley is staging this extravagant gesture is to change what he described to me as a “misunderstanding of both domesticated and street pigeons.
“People generally don’t realize the important role they’ve played throughout history, as far as advancing our civilization and being a major form of communication — not just for the military sense but also in shaping how we receive news,” he said, adding that pigeons are now being trained to detect tumors in mammograms.
With a rich history as war messengers, carrier pigeons are still kept and trained by many people known as fanciers. Riley himself has had over two decades of personal experience with pigeon keeping, in his 20s even living inside a Providence-based coop for four years. Over time, he’s built up his own flock that resides in Red Hook. He adopted more pigeons for “Fly By Night,” so around half of the performance’s participants belong to him; the rest are on loan from his friends in the tight-knit pigeon-keeping community (Riley is part of the Brooklyn Pigeon Crew). The artist previously trained birds for Trading with the Enemy, a project for which he had them smuggle cigars into the country from Cuba. Many have names: on my visit to the Baylander, I met Wild Irish Rose, Saturday Night Fever, Socks on the Beach, and Socks’ partner, Sid — a giant king pigeon who’s blind in one eye.
“Fly By Night” is site specific, intended to commemorate New York City’s own history of rooftop pigeon lofts, which are disappearing. While the birds were common rooftop pets between the 1930s and ’50s, fewer than 200 people in the city today still raise pigeons on their buildings, by Riley’s estimate. Aside from a misunderstanding of the practice, he attributes the decline to the rising costs of living, the repurposing of rooftop spaces, the large amount of time it takes to maintain coops, and a general lack of interest from younger generations.
The spot by the water where the performance is staged also has specific ties to communication by Columbiformes. “This area we’re looking out at is the former site of Cob Dock, a man-made island that existed from around the time of the Civil War to the early half of the 20th century,” Riley told me, gesturing to the open waters of Wallabout Bay as we looked out from the Baylander, where he also sleeps at times. “It was the site of the largest naval pigeon coop in the country, where they would train pigeons to go out on navy vessels to communicate back to shore before there were radios.”
As often happens with art projects that involve animals, this one has received its share of backlash. Last weekend, around two dozen protesters brought together by the Animal Cruelty Exposure Fund waved signs and chanted at the Navy Yard gates, condemning the performance that evening. An online petition, which at the time of this writing has nearly 6,000 signatures, is calling for Riley to halt “Fly By Night.” Initiated by a woman in Wisconsin, it argues that the bright LED lights cause stress to the birds, whom it describes as “virtually blind in the dark.”
As Riley emphasized to me, the birds involved are not street pigeons but domesticated breeds, which have different behaviors. His flock includes Tipplers, extremely athletic birds known for their ability to fly for 18 hours straight; Damascenes, particularly skilled at night-time flights; and Rollers, which turn in the air when they’re happy and relaxed.
“We have Rollers that, after everybody has left, go up and roll in the sky above the coops,” Riley said. “At that point, it is dark, and we’re not even flying the birds, but they just go up and roll.
“The birds are definitely capable of seeing,” he continued. “They’ve been doing the same things for years now. They do not have poor eyesight and are not struggling up there. If they were having trouble seeing, they would probably crash into buildings and each other. Clearly they fly — they often intersect and intertwine. They wouldn’t be capable of that if they weren’t able to see. None of them even remotely come close to colliding.
“The birds are definitely not under any kind of stress or in danger. I wouldn’t invite 500 people down here to witness some kind of animal abuse.”
Besides discussions with Riley (who himself has had conversations with pigeon neurologists and experts, wildlife organizations, and fanciers for years), Creative Time has taken its own measures to minimize risk to the birds. The public art organization has consulted animal experts and government agencies on issues of animal welfare and public health, as well as attained an animal exhibition permit from NYC’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Animal Affairs Division. A veterinarian from the Center for Avian and Exotic Medicine has been regularly conducting health checks; the Wild Bird Fund also sends an independent animal advocacy monitor to watch over every performance. The latter, an avian rehabilitation center, has even endorsed “Fly By Night,” with Director Rita McMahon saying it would “have a transformative effect on avian welfare.” A crew of nearly a dozen full-time pigeon attendants provides day-to-day attention. And in the event of rain or heavy wind conditions, the performance is postponed.
As for the birds’ habitats, Riley carefully designed the 13 lofts — which were made specifically to fit the Baylander’s deck — to provide their residents with maximum comfort. Created in collaboration with architectural firm Olson Kundig and in consultation with the veterinarian, they allow for ample cross ventilation and ideal temperatures while providing space for socialization; birds mate for life, and Riley has ensured that couples and families remain together. Even the coops’ roof is pitched at a precise angle to present a comfortable landing platform and has openings for the birds to come and go as they please.
Loft architecture, Riley told me, is something people have been honing for thousands of years, and the final design drew on imagery of coop plans from around the world. Olson Kundig’s Kristen Becker specified that it was particularly influenced by historical military pigeon loft designs. With views of the East River and Williamsburg Bridge, the habitats, she quipped, present “a lovely waterfront condo experience.” And like house numbers, their exteriors have international maritime signal letter flags painted on them, representing the initials of various pigeon keepers in Brooklyn. Besides saluting the pigeon community, these also assist the birds, which have excellent visual memory, in identifying their individual coops.
Considering the lofts, “Fly By Night” is as much an architectural project as it is a performative one. It may be easy for some to brush it off as simply theatrical, but Riley does not intend solely to entertain — he also wants to present different strands of the history of pigeon keeping. With the LED lights replacing what would usually be notes or other lightweight objects, the “Fly By Night” pigeons aren’t just showcasing their role as couriers; they’re displaying their skills and their ability to serve humans in situations beyond our own faculties.
Observers who haven’t read about the performance beforehand may not see it and immediately contemplate the history of carrier pigeons. But I think it’s difficult to leave “Fly By Night” without at least a sense of respect for their dutifulness. And after considering the many tragedies that could befall these pigeons in-service — bullets were one way to intercept them — this respect becomes more like a reverence, for an animal faithfully committed to missions on which lives beside their own depended. As I gathered with a large crowd and gazed skyward, I felt the birds were receiving a proper salute, finally illuminated against the dusky sky that often cloaks them.
“Fly By Night“ continues at the Brooklyn Navy Yard (entrance at the intersection of Sands and Navy Streets) every weekend at dusk through June 19. General admission tickets are sold out, but you can join the wait list.