On a crisp Sunday morning, a group of men shuffle around a big warehouse space in West Babylon. Some walk by with small wooden carriers, while others chat casually and hassle each other like old friends.
Off to one side sits a table with bagels and hot coffee. On the other side stands George Ruotolo atop his perch. In one hand he holds a pigeon, gently waving it back and forth and pointing it toward the crowd. He whistles and calls out to the men gathered around: "Fellas! Check these out . . . beautiful hen birds."
The bird he has pulled from the long metal cage in front of him is not your average New York City street pigeon — it's not missing an eye or walking with a limp, nor is it dirty or neglected. This is a grizzle Tippler, a nice-looking young bird covered with a patchwork of gray, white and black feathers with a slight hint of iridescent purple and green on the lower neck. It's a fancy pigeon, so it's more of a show bird than a racer, and it's on the auction block to be traded to the highest bidder.
You've just entered one dimension of the world of pigeon fanciers, who breed, show and race pigeons for sport. They can be found in almost every corner of the world. On Long Island, two long-established clubs are the Nassau Suffolk Pigeon Fanciers Club in Holtsville and the Mid-Island Flying Flight Pigeon Club in West Babylon. They and their members represent a tapestry of culture, tradition and passion, much like the hobby itself.
"You get a chance to meet a real bunch of nice guys here," said Ruotolo, 67, who is vice president of the Mid-Island club, which has about 35 members. "Everybody has one thing in common: They all love and breed pigeons."
Humans' relationship with pigeons has evolved over thousands of years, dating back to the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia.
The birds have most commonly been used as a source of meat and most notably as a communication delivery system. During World War I and World War II, the U.S. Army Signal Corps used a fleet of carrier pigeons to deliver messages from the battlefield to military outposts sometimes hundreds of miles away, and even awarded medals to individual birds for their service.
Today, pigeons are more often used for sport and entertainment. Throughout the United States and other parts of the world, there are organized shows, much like dog or cat shows, that allow breeders to have their best birds judged against others, striving to reach what they call the "Standard," a measure of perfection defined by beak length, coloring, head shape and other anatomical features.
"People don't realize that there is more to pigeons than just the gray birds you see out under the bridge," said fancier John Nelson, 51, an emergency medical service dispatcher from Bohemia who raises a variety of fancy pigeons, including Indian fantails and the seemingly gothic-inspired Jacobin breed, with its ornate plume on either side of its head.
Pigeon racing has grown in popularity in some parts of the world, with birds typically racing between 100 and 300 miles using an amazing innate sense of navigation to return to their home.
As is often the case with racing, there is money and pride to be gained or lost. Recently, a single Belgian racing homer was sold to a Chinese businessman at a record price, a reported $400,000.
The Nassau Suffolk and Mid-Island clubs work to cultivate the social side of the hobby, which is more affordable and for many fanciers just as important as the birds themselves.
"There's always someone there who can lend you a hand or guide you in a direction if you are having a problem or experimenting with a new line of birds," said Islip Terrace resident Gina Kerkovich, 51, a lifelong fancier who recently joined the Nassau Suffolk Pigeon Fanciers Club, which has about 60 members. "It's like a wealth of information. But more importantly, it's also a place to be with other folks that enjoy doing what you do, and the camaraderie is amazing."
Despite their enthusiasm and passion, many fanciers said they are worried about the decline in interest among younger adults and are concerned about the hobby's future. Many lifelong fanciers credit their birds for giving them a sense of responsibility when they were younger.
"I guess it really kept me out of trouble as a youngster too," said Gus Coletti, 78, of Oak Beach, the longtime president and a co-founder of the Nassau Suffolk club. "Because I was always interested in the birds, I couldn't wait to get home."
Both clubs are increasing their community outreach efforts, through presentations for schoolchildren and public exhibitions. It may be paying off.
"The sport is definitely not dying off," said Ruotolo, the auctioneer. "Our enrollment is up 40 percent in the last two years."
Contacting the pigeon clubs
Athletes, artists and villains have fallen for their feathered friends, among them boxer Mike Tyson, inventor Nikola Tesla, artist Pablo Picasso, actor Yul Brynner, former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and Charles Darwin, father of the theory of evolution.
Mid-Island Flying Flight Pigeon Club
President: Andrew Franz
Meets third Sunday of every month at 148 Lamar St., West Babylon
Nassau Suffolk Pigeon Fanciers Club
President: Gus Coletti
Meets second Tuesday of every month at Bayshore-Brightwaters Library, Brightwaters
— Daniel Brennan