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WATCH: One of the Last Pigeon Keepers in the East Village Tends His Flock

By Serena Solomon | October 2, 2013 6:29am
Anton van Dalen
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DNAinfo/Serena Solomon

EAST VILLAGE — Every afternoon, East Village artist Anton van Dalen goes up to his rooftop and sets his flock of snow-white pigeons soaring into the sky.

"Right, let's go," he says, hoisting one or two birds into the air with his hands, giving the rest of the group the signal to take flight.

The Avenue A rooftop erupts in a blizzard of feathers and flapping wings, and within seconds, the 35 pigeons are streaming through the air as if in a choreographed dance routine.

Van Dalen, 75, is one of the last remaining East Village residents to keep pigeons, a hobby that was once common among the neighborhood's European immigrants. Rather than homing pigeons that are released far from home to find their way back, van Dalen's birds are more like pets that wait in their coop until their regular afternoon flying time and return on their own after about an hour in the sky.

"The flying is spectacular, and of course it connects you back to nature in a way that many of us in the city don't have," said van Dalen, who moved across the Atlantic from Holland as a young boy, following World War II.

Van Dalen, who has always felt a deep connection to his birds, took up pigeon keeping after learning it from his father and his brothers when they lived in Holland.

"In that time, in our culture, it was not an unusual thing," he said.

Today, van Dalen keeps control of his flock by running a tight coop on his rooftop near East 10th Street.

Security cameras are pointed at the birds, streaming live footage that he monitors in his art studio below.

All the pigeons are related and are tagged for their birth year and parents so van Dalen can track how the family tree grows. He carefully breeds them to select for traits like the color of their feathers.

"I wanted to make them more and more white so I just kept breeding together the ones that had the most white," he said.

The result is a flock with glowing white feathers that pick up the colors of the fading light when the pigeons hit the air at the end of each day.

"There are these openings [in the clouds] when the sun comes through and they all light up like silver," said van Dalen, whose paintings and drawings often include images of his birds.

Years ago, van Dalen knew other pigeon keepers in the neighborhood, but now he hasn't seen another group in the East Village sky for years.

"They [domesticated pigeons] fly together in a tight group and street pigeons are often very gray," he said, of the difference between his birds and pigeons of the urban wild.

Many of the old-timers who kept pigeons in the area, including in Little Italy and the Lower East Side, have died, according to Al Croseri, 40, a Gramercy resident who made the documentary "Pigeons in Combat" and is familiar with New York City's pigeon keepers.

"The landlords are kicking people out, not to mention the pigeons," he said. "The Lower East Side used to be full of coops."

Van Dalen has owned two-thirds of his building since 1985, so he has been able to keep his coop and give a little wonder to those who turn toward the sky during flight time.

"It is like you are sending up fireworks," he said.