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We’re of the opinion that if you’re a die-hard New Yorker, you kind of love pigeons (or at least have a morbid curiosity about them). We’ve been on a pigeon-themed landmark tour of the city and hung out with artist Mother Pigeon. Now, arts non-profit Creative Time, behind some of the most stunning art installations we’ve seen, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard will present the public artwork Fly by Night by artist Duke Riley. Each Friday through Sunday evening from May 7 to June 12th, thousands of pigeons will be released from a converted historic boat in an orchestrated performance. Leg bands on the pigeons, used historically to carry messages, will be replaced by LED lights controlled by remote control.

Fittingly, the work is an homage to the pigeon keepers who domesticated the birds on rooftops across the boroughs. The practice, though still in existence, has been diminishing due to real estate pressure and population shifts. The Brooklyn Navy Yard forms an ideal location for Fly by Night, as it was once the base for the country’s largest naval fleet of pigeon carriers, who delivered messages for the military and were housed in a manmade island (now gone) called Cob Island in Wallabout Bay.

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With the invention of the wireless, the Navy put up the pigeons in a bargain sale in the early 1900s. According to the Telluride Daily Journal in 1902, “the [pigeon] lofts at the Brooklyn navy yard have long been the pride of certain officers in the navy, and are well-known, and much talked of in every locality where homers are kept. The sale of those birds was a great blow to the fanciers of the navy, and although they protested, nothing could be done to save the birds.”

The Telluride paper also notes the number of private enterprises of pigeon carriers, with owners using the birds to deliver both personal and business communication. Numerous pigeons become near celebrity like for their ancestry and distance flown, and the Daily Journal described them as having  “famous Belgian stock…and a pedigree as long as any of the descendants of the Mayflower.”

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Duke Riley has been raising pigeons for much of his adult life and will be working with numerous types of trained pigeons, including Homers and Flights, Rollers and Tumblers, Russian Highfliers, Syrian Damascene, one of the oldest breeds, who have the ability to fly well at night. Fly by Night and Creative Time have worked with pigeon experts and groups, animal welfare groups, and have an animal exhibition permit from the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The staff includes an avian veterinarian who has established health protocols for the birds.   

Riley has had a long interest in the history of New York City. He built and launched the one-man Revolutionary War-era submarine (as seen in our history of the Secrets of Governors Island and featured in the second season of the AMC Revolutionary War spy drama Turn). He also opened a bar out of the ruins of a historic homestead.

Stay tuned for our coverage of the first weekend of Fly by Night. Tickets for the event are sold out, but interested guests can sign up for the waitlist.

Next, check out 16 outdoor art installations not to miss in NYC this May

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