About the Flock
What is Duke Riley’s history and interest in pigeons?
The artist, Duke Riley, first bonded with pigeons after rescuing one as a young boy, and he has raised them for most of his adult life. Gentle and social birds, pigeons have been domesticated for service and companionship for thousands of years. Today, they are still kept as pets by pigeon fanciers globally. New York City once had many pigeon coops dotting its skyline, but rapid development and population shifts have caused this community of fanciers to dwindle. In this way, Fly By Night is at once a tribute to the long history of pigeon keeping, and an homage to these small creatures who New Yorkers see daily but generally know little about.
Professionally, Riley worked with homing pigeons during his project Trading With the Enemy in 2013. On that occasion, the pigeons flew the 100 miles from Havana to Key West, an easy distance for the birds. He worked with pigeons again during the 2015 Havana Biennial, where he flew birds over the city.
What kinds of pigeons are involved in this project?
For Fly By Night, a variety of specially trained pigeons were gathered. Enthusiasts could spot Homers and Flights, Rollers and Tumblers, Russian Highfliers, as well as one of the oldest breeds, the Syrian Damascene, who are particularly adept at flying at night.
Where did the birds come from?
Many of the birds were from Riley’s personal flock. He also acquired or rescued a variety of domesticated pigeons from pigeon fanciers in the region. The artist knows many of the owners personally through the pigeon fancying community in New York City.
What do avian experts think of Fly By Night?
Rita McMahon, Director of the Wild Bird Fund, had this to say about the project: “Fly By Night will have a transformative effect on avian welfare by helping us see that the life in the sky — from the under-appreciated pigeon to migratory marathoners — is one of nature’s superb art forms, one we can cherish everyday just by looking up.”
Were animal experts consulted for the project?
Yes, Fly By Night was extensively researched in relation to the behavior and well being of pigeons. Information from pigeon clubs to animal welfare groups was extensively reviewed, and individual experts were consulted. From the beginning of the project, Riley and Creative Time retained an avian veterinarian who helped establish proper protocols for the health and safety of keeping pigeons and makes regular visits to the loft. Additionally, an independent animal advocacy monitor was on hand for all performances.
Did Creative Time consult any government agencies about the project?
Creative Time reached out to a number of New York State and City agencies about the project regarding guidance on animal welfare and public health, and was issued an animal exhibition permit from the Animal Affairs Division of the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which was accompanied by health certificates for the flock.
Where were the pigeons kept?
The pigeons were kept in lofts specifically designed in consultation with the project’s avian veterinarian to keep the birds healthy and safe. Their individual lofts allowed for movement and socialization, and were contained within a ventilated space. A team of pigeon attendants was on site daily to care for the birds.
How are they organized?
For the duration of Fly By Night, the pigeons were organized to preserve existing pairs and communities. They were given special color-coded bands that indicate origin and vaccination.
Who looked after the pigeons?
Before, during, and after the performance, the artist, an avian veterinarian, and a team of specially trained handlers cared for the birds, many of whom are pigeon fanciers themselves.
What happened if a pigeon fell sick or was injured?
Creative Time retained the services of an avian veterinarian for the entirety of Fly By Night to administer the proper health protocols for all birds, including those who fell sick or sustained an injury. Upon joining the flock, each new bird was temporarily quarantined and inoculated against common illnesses. Pigeons catch colds and viruses just like humans, and if birds exhibited any suspect symptoms they were moved to specially designed pigeon “clinic” for observation and treatment by the avian vet. Health checks were conducted regularly, and records were kept on each bird to track its health condition. While the general public was not be in direct contact with any of the birds, and pigeons and pigeon droppings pose a minimal public health risk if cared for properly, you can find additional information on pigeons and public health here.
What happened to the birds once the exhibition was over?
At the completion of Fly By Night, Riley will keep many of the pigeons as his pets. Others will be returned to their original owners or be placed with local pigeon fanciers, a community that has the knowledge and experience to properly care for the birds.
How was the flight illuminated?
The illumination of the flight was Riley’s gesture towards celebrating the natural beauty of the birds, something that so many New Yorkers may otherwise overlook in their day to day lives. In collaboration with the artist and field experts, we employed a Navy Yard-based, innovative design and technology firm to create special, lightweight, avian legbands that contain a tiny, remote controlled LED light.
The lights were specially designed for Fly By Night. They used exactly the same design as legbands worn by all domesticated birds and simply add a tiny LED light. Our team of caretakers removed and replaced them each week in conjunction with the flock’s regular bathtime and health checks.
Could pigeons see during the performance?
Yes. In fact, that’s what enabled the birds to find their way home each evening. The flights were actually staged at a carefully timed moment between civil and nautical twilight, when there is still daylight. Additionally, the coops’ rooftop lighting and brightly colored paint provided even further navigational assistance. Because pigeons were able to recognize shapes and figures, Riley also adorned the roofs with colorful, nautical flags so that the birds could identify and return to their individual perches after each flight.
What role did the flags (and bells/whistles/music) play in the flights?
Routine visual and auditory cues are very common practices amongst pigeon fanciers and were used by Riley and his fellow caretakers to give signals to the flock. Waving of flags is a signal that it’s time to fly and exercise. Conversely, whistles and bells signal the flock that it’s time to return, eat and rest.
General Pigeon FAQS
What do pigeons eat?
The pigeons ate a specially prepared blend of grains, peas, barley and corn.
How long can a pigeon live?
The average lifespan of a pigeon varies greatly from 3-5 years through to 15 years dependent on many factors, including natural predation and human interference. A well cared for pigeon can live upwards of 15 years or more. Pigeons kept as pets often live longer than their feral counterparts.
Do pigeons live alone?
If they are not separated, pigeons mate for life. Duke Riley and Creative Time took care to maintain the social order of the birds in Fly By Night, including keeping paired sets together with their young.
Do pigeons have natural predators?
Though pigeons living in an urban environment face a variety of man-made dangers, they are also at risk from natural predators such as cats, hawks, and other birds of prey.
(Photo: Will Star/Shooting Stars Pro)