By Marianne Müller, Brooklyn, NY, 1/25/2001. (Excerpts from an interview)
“All the years, I have watched them, you know” – John Mandato On His Pigeons
Since when? When I started flying birds? Since I was about fourteen. No, not over here. Where I used to live years ago. I was fourteen years old and, ah, now I’m seventy-six. It’s about some about sixty-somewhat years, I guess.
There was this boy I went to school with. So I used to call for him to go to school, and he had pigeons in the yard. I used to watch them, and then I met some other kid, and he told me to come up to his roof. That’s how we started, you know. And then once the war came, I stopped flying for, you know, for two and a half years, and then, after the war, I came back and started again.
Well, I used to be what they call … See, they used to call me a “chaser.” One who takes care of the birds, you know, and who chases the birds and all that, while the owner worked. And then on the weekend, when the guy was home, he used to fly them, you know. I would be there, too. So, I never really owned them, but I used to do what I wanted, practically, and like I said, once the war came, that was it. Then the guy took care of them. And after the war the neighborhood went bad, and I came down this way to fly birds. That was it.
These are the only birds I ever owned, now after sixty-somewhat years. I really own them, but the only reason I own them is that my partner died, you know. About a couple a years ago. But otherwise I always used to be a chaser. I never had, you know … I could never get a roof, because a lot of people don’t want pigeons, that’s the whole thing. So I met this guy here, and he asked me if I wanted to come up. And that was it, that’s how I started up here. I’m up here forty years. Yeah, long time.
See, at one time, there used to be a lot of birds around, and I used to like to be up here by myself, you know. You always tried to catch more than the other guy, you know, but we used to catch together. A lot of birds, years ago, there was lots of birds around. I used to like that, when he’d come up the next day and I’d say, “I caught five,” “I caught seven,” whatever. Forget about it now, there is nothing around hardly, and I ain’t nobody to talk to.
Once in a while these guys come up, you know. When they lose birds I sell them back. So, but otherwise, you know, it’s a … it’s a little lonely up here. That’s why I’m always … that’s why I always clean, either clean the coop or doing something. Once I used to come up from daybreak till sunset. No more. As I said, there used to be birds around here years ago. Now, slowed down.
All the people that lived here before moved away. A lot of them was old, you know, old and they died, you know. This type of guys used to fly differently, not like these guys. Different type of guys that fly. All those guys are old, they died off, and that was it. Those guys used to buy birds. They used to buy fifty, sixty birds. They’d go up on the roof, maybe fifteen, twenty minutes later, they’d throw them all out, birds all over the place. Nowadays, they, you know, well … Nowadays, the birds cost more.
One time, when I first came out of the service, I used to buy young birds, six for a dollar. Now the cheapest bird you buy is three dollars a piece, you know, three dollars. Then it got up to five, ten, fifteen dollars and all that, it’s all according. Certain birds are a little rare, or whatever the hell it is, and it costs a lot of money. I would never buy them. All the birds I got I caught. I mean, except in the beginning, you know, we bought some birds. But there are birds up here for sixty years, sixty years up here.
When other guys’ birds come over, if you like the guy, you sell them back. If you don’t like the guy, you don’t sell them back to. You charge the guy two dollars a piece. Some guys … Some guys, if you like them, you give them to them for a dollar, or you give them back for nothing, you know. Like from one guy I get a dollar, a dollar catch. This other guy is two dollars. One guy I know for years, I must know him for about forty years, almost, right, forty years. Like, I sell them back to him for a quarter a piece. That money you take … You know, if you catch enough birds, it don’t cost you nothing for the hobby. You know, it’s a hobby, right. It don’t cost you nothing.
The fun of it is to try to catch other birds. That’s the fun of it, you know. The action, when the hawk comes, or when they … When they go out, you know. They roll out, in other words, they keep going till … Might be about four or five miles away, or what the heck. It is wherever they wind up, that you get hope they’d come back … That’s what they call a “roll out,” to keep going. Something, something gets in to their heads. They get exited, or whatever the hell it is, and they just keep going. You know, when the hawk comes after them, they go with the wind, against the wind, everything all over the place. Yeah, sometimes, like when that hawk comes, you could loose the oldest bird on the roof. Yes, you might have had him for years, and the best part of it is the hawk came so many times, right? And he is … ah … You know, you didn’t loose him. But one particular day, I don’t know what the hell it is. Maybe the hawk gets close to him, I don’t know what the hell it is. You loose him, you see. You got the bird six years, five years. All of a sudden, he gets lost. You never know what’s in their minds. You try to figure it out. It’s like this guy here: One day, he’ll be up there, and the hawk comes, and he’s gone.
In summertime, they don’t like to fly too much, too hot, you know. When they come down, they are puffing, they got their mouth wide open. It’s like people, they can’t … want too much in the summer. In wintertime, they fly, you know, better. It’s cool. The only thing you worry about is the hawk in the winter. In summertime, he don’t come around that much, once in a … once in a while.
In the summertime, a lot of times they’ll come down. They are thirsty for water. That’s how years ago I used to catch a lot. They used to come down. I used to watch them, right? And they start running for water, and I go over there, while he puts his head down, grab them, or I’d use the net. Yeah, sometimes they come for water in the summertime. Wintertime they usually, you know, come for the feed, they are hungry. That’s what keeps them warm … when they are filled up.
Yeah, they like to take a lot of baths. One time, I thought it was just because … See, my partner he says, “Oh, when it gets cloudy, or when it’s gonna rain,” he says, “they’ll take a bath.” But I put them out and with the sun and all, I see them taking baths. So, a lot of times it starts to cloud up, you know. It starts to get cloudy, but they take a lot of baths. The ones on the street, I don’t know what the hell they do, but they, they look healthier than these here. I don’t think they get as sick as these here. The ones on the street, you never see them sick like these. So, I don’t know.
See, they really don’t like to fly over water. Yeah, they don’t like to fly over water. Like especially these here, I say, these here, like I said before. They roll out, they keep going and going and going. Like one time, ours, mine, went out over the, what’s the name … the Williamsburg Bridge over there, over the water. The guy told us they went over there to Manhattan. All those birds forget about them. They are lost, they won’t cross the water, you know, go on there. You know, they keep going … Once they got over the water, that was it. They don’t like to cross water. But that day they went over there, because the hawk was after them. I guess, they have got to be trained to go over the water. These here are scared about it. I heard stories years ago. The birds just go out, and then it starts snowing, or something like that, and the whole bunch went in the water. They all went down. Yeah, they got killed. They kept flying, flying, and they went into the water, some guy told me, some old-timer.
They recognize certain landmarks and stuff like that. I forgot … I read something in the paper about that, you know. They only really go up to a certain amount, then … I guess … whatever. Nobody, nobody knows, not even the scientists. They have been trying to figure it out for years. Nobody knows how they do it. Everybody has a theory, but nobody seems to know. Yeah …
Some birds could fly for hours, but they don’t have no brains. Other birds, you know … Like what I tell you before, like when the birds roll out, they go to a different neighborhood, right? They go all the way out. If they stay together, even the dumb ones … If they got a half a brain, they stick with the birds, and they get back. But some break up out there, it’s like every man for himself, you know. They break up, the ones that don’t have the brains, that’s it. The first guy he sees, he goes down, you know. That’s the fun of it. You don’t know who has got brains and who has not got brains. I got birds here, I raised for tree, four years, right? They went apart one day, when the hawk scared them. I lost them, they got lost. And so many times, they did the same exact thing, and they came back. One day they just … just get lost. I don’t know what the hell it is that goes on their heads. Something scares them, whatever it is. When I see that hawk, it’s like a tiger chasing me. So that’s the whole thing.
You keep them hungry, just in case they’d go off. You throw a little feed, and they’ll come down. After a while, they start getting used to it, and then the next day, the same thing. If they are smart, they go off, and they, you know, they’ll be gone. But they’ll stay. A lot of them will stay, especially if they are mated. So they’ll stay, and each day, you know, you put them out a little more. After a time, they start to get a little more, you know, to get used to the place, and they get to know the neighborhood, and that’s how it is. Then you catch birds, you know. If you like it, you keep it. You try to mate it off.
Now, you probably wanna know, if they mate up for life, like everybody else does, right? I think about 98% percent of them mate up for life, some of them break off. I had birds mated up for years, and all of a sudden, they broke off. I don’t know why, but they broke off. I got a … In fact, I got a pair here, the hen got sick, and they broke off. Now I noticed they went back together, finally, after about three months, three or four months, so …
What I was going to tell you before about the birds. Like … they are like people. The coop has got nest-boxes in there. It’s like people living in an apartment house. They have got their own apartment. When somebody comes in your apartment, you throw them out, or you fight with them. Same thing with them. If another bird goes in their box, they fight like hell. Now, if the bird is … If the pair is old … Like people, old people don’t fight, you know. If they are old, they don’t fight, the other bird takes over.
That’s a little … At times, it is a little hard to tell. Most of the time, you could tell, but then … it’s a little … Maybe some guys could tell, I don’t know. I figure I could tell. I got birds here, I thought it was hens. Next thing I know, it’s cooing around like hell. It’s a crazy cock. The young one I raised I’d swear is a hen. It’s a crazy cock. And sometimes you think it’s a cock, and it’s a hen. See, the hens are usually a little smaller than the cocks, but then you get big hens, too. I guess it’s like people. You get big girls too.
Then you get birds that are maidish, you know, like hens. They’re like … these women, loose women, you know. They run around with everybody. I got one there, I don’t know how many … You know, she takes who the hell she wants. She’s got a man, but she don’t stay with him. She goes with everybody. Annoys me.
Like people, like I said, like people. Same thing. People are married there for twenty years, then come home one day, the note is on the table “Adios.” To me, they are almost like people, they do about the same damn thing. Like I said about mating up for life, right? Most of them, you know, they’ll stay together for life, and some, few of them, they break up.
The funny part of it is … See, you could break them off like … See, you gonna mate a pair, you want to put that dammed cock over that hen, on somebody else. So you break them up and, ah, you know … Say maybe raise some birds, but that pair will see each other, but they won’t bother each other, you know, once they broke off. You see what I mean?
A lot of times, I put them together because I want a certain kind of birds. Like if I put, say, two black ones together, by rights they are supposed to raise a black one. What happens … these birds … how to put them, like in other words … Damned, you know, guys breed so much that, like a throwback … You know what a throwback is? In other words, you got a black and white person, same thing. You could have a black kid and may be the next time you have a white kid. That white kid might marry somebody else, a white kid, and when they have kids, might be black. Same thing with them. That’s what happens with them. So, in other words, you know, they mingle their … whatever they call this.
Yeah, well. See, he lost his maid, and then he started hanging out with me, you know, follow me and all that, right? Then he got mated, I finally got a maid, and he didn’t bother me. Now he’s got a maid. He, you know … Sometimes he comes. Sometimes, well, if he is real hungry, he’ll come looking for me to feed him. If I go by the coop, he’ll comes running over. If I’m over here, he’ll come. Sometimes when he is flying, he starts to come down towards me. I think he want’s to drop on my head. But it’s always … I guess like pets and stuff like that.
We used to have one, it was a hen. She was a maidish, very maidish hen, and this kid here that used to fly up here also, he used to fool around with her, and he used to coo around like a bird, you know. Like a pigeon, and she used to start strutting around, you know. Like to get mated, she strutted around, you know. She is a real … What’s the name there? … Well, whatever … But he always had a pet, you know, he always had.
If you like to raise, raise birds … I’m not that particularly crazy about that, but you know … you raise them, like I says, they’ll have eggs. They take eighteen to twenty-one days to hatch. Some guys tell you a little different, I don’t know, but I always figured eighteen to twenty-one days. If they don’t hatch after a while, they get off, you know, they don’t bother.
Yeah, sometimes I watch them there. They fight like hell. Once in a while I get mad. They chase each other all over the roof. They fight like hell. But the best fathers … I don’t wanna say it on a camera, but they, do you know? Sometimes the hen and a cock is ready, you know. They are messing around, messing and all this. They are kissing there and all that there, right? Then she lays down, you know. In the meantime, he is puttering around so much, that somebody else sneaks on. And that’s why you get all this. Sometimes this guy circles around, circles around … The other guy comes running over, up, jumps on her, that’s it.
But then I tell you the truth, I don’t think they … All these years I watched them, you know. Sixty years I’ve been watching, right? This cock … I don’t think they know who the hen is or who the cock is. Because they coo after a cock, they’ll chase a cock all over the place. The same thing with the hens, you know. They chase the hens, so I don’t think those cocks know who the hell is who, to tell the truth. But I watch them for years, this is why I don’t think they know who the hell is who, unless they are fruitcakes.
It’s … I tell you, you know. It’s nice to watch this. They fight, they try to mate up. I don’t know what the hell it is, they do their job. They’ll come down and start cooing around again. I said, “Jesus Christ!” … Well, you know, they could do it all day long. I don’t know what the hell it is, they don’t stop. You know to come down like to …
Yeah, sixty years, and I really don’t know that much about them. You never know. Same thing like when you are trying to catch a stray, you got to try to figure out what that stray wants.
Edited by Martin Jaeggi
Marianne Müller, The Flock, Steidl Publishers, Göttingen, 2005
ASX CHANNEL: Marianne Mueller
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