Bird Man

A Photo Essay by Patrick Smith
Introduction By John Lewis - April 2013

Bird Man

A Photo Essay by Patrick Smith
Introduction By John Lewis - April 2013

Eyes on the sky, Mr. Tony watches for hawks as pigeons spill from the asphalt-shingled coop behind his Barclay Street row house. It’s feeding time, and, inevitably, a few of his 200 or so birds slip out in all the commotion.

“Sometimes, a hawk comes down and swipes one,” he says. Mr. Tony grabs a broom and shoos them toward the coop. He’s especially concerned because these “new kids on the block” are just months old. “Get back in there,” he says. “You don’t know nothin’ ’bout this world out here.” He follows the birds into the coop, closing a screen door behind him. Shelves of hay-filled nests line the walls, and Mr. Tony’s presence triggers rounds of cooing, punctuated by occasional peeps from the tiniest birds. He sweeps up and checks on certain birds. Grandpop, one of his oldest, looks good. So does Nighter, the 17-year-old father of Crazy White, who once escaped a hawk by flying through an open window that kept the larger bird at bay. Another bird shows some swelling on an injured leg that Mr. Tony treated with salt water and bandaged. He’ll keep an eye on that.

The 66-year-old Greenmount West resident—whose father named him Chopin, after the composer, and later nicknamed him Tony—has been keeping and flying birds for more than half a century. He got into it as a youngster, watching older guys catch pigeons by the railroad tracks near his home. It was common, at the time, to breed birds as a side-hustle and sell them as flyers or, to Mr. Tony’s chagrin, delicacies.

These days, Mr. Tony keeps three types of birds: tipplers (for covering long distances), homers (with their uncanny homing instinct), and rollers (which tumble and perform aerial tricks). He trains them to return to the coop by releasing groups of young and experienced birds—the young follow the old—and incrementally increasing the distance they travel. He’s taken them as far as the New Jersey Turnpike.

“These birds are my life,” says Mr. Tony, before ticking off a litany of personal ailments, including diabetes and asthma. “But I don’t let anything bother me, because I got to take care of them. When you’re a birdman, you’re a birdman.”

Rows of hay-filled nests line the walls inside the backyard coop. -Photography by Patrick Smith
Holding and inspecting a favorite bird. -Photography by Patrick Smith
Mural of Mr. Tony in his Greenmount West neighborhood. -Photography by Patrick Smith
Mr. Tony watching the sky for returning birds. -Photography by Patrick Smith
Mr. Tony warms his hands by the oven -Photography by Patrick Smith
Mr. Tony watching the sky for returning birds. -Photography by Patrick Smith
Mr. Tony in the backyard of his Barclay Street house -Photography by Patrick Smith
Holding the flag he uses to signal and guide the birds -Photography by Patrick Smith
The contents of Mr. Tony’s pockets include dice, Tootsie Rolls, and an inhaler for his asthma -Photography by Patrick Smith
A 30-gallon container of bird feed (a mixture of corn, peas, and rice) sits by a kitchen window. -Photography by Patrick Smith
Mr. Tony transferring pigeons from coop to cage. -Photography by Patrick Smith
A pigeon at the coop’s door -Photography by Patrick Smith
Pigeons circling overhead -Photography by Patrick Smith
Mr. Tony handling pigeons inside the coop. -Photography by Patrick Smith
Traffic cones on the roof make the coop more visible from the air. -Photography by Patrick Smith
Exiting his backyard with birds in a carrier -Photography by Patrick Smith
Pushing carrier in a shopping cart down Greenmount Avenue, a few blocks from his home -Photography by Patrick Smith
Releasing birds and watching them take flight and, eventually, return to the coop. -Photography by Patrick Smith

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