Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Sad news in the pigeon world

This from today's New York Times:

November 7, 2007

Frank Viola, Leader in Sport of Racing Pigeons, Dies at 87

Frank Viola, one of the grand old men of a grand old New York sport — pigeon racing — died on Oct. 3 at his home in the Bath Beach section of Brooklyn. He was 87.


Pigeon racing in the United States is at least a century old, but the sport really took hold in this country in the decades after World War II. Then, it was impossible to walk down the street in certain New York neighborhoods (among them Bensonhurst and Bath Beach) without one’s eyes being drawn upward by wheeling flocks of birds, which exploded into the air like fistfuls of thrown confetti.

These were no ordinary street birds, but racers — homing pigeons whose care, feeding and lively under-the-table handicapping were the consuming pastime of a generation of New York men.

Though racing pigeons are the same species as the common variety (both are rock doves), they are to New York’s street birds what Secretariat would be to a Central Park carriage horse. A true racing pigeon, which can fly up to 70 miles per hour, is a thoroughbred — all speed, muscle and pedigree. It can find its way back to its coop from nearly a thousand miles away. Prices for the best birds can run to thousands of dollars, even hundreds of thousands.

For almost nine decades, Mr. Viola raised flocks of the finest pigeons he could buy, trucking them hundreds of miles from the city for the enormous thrill (and the less enormous monetary reward) of seeing them race home again. Throughout the city, on tenement rooftops and in tiny urban backyards, other men — immigrants or, like Mr. Viola, sons of immigrants — were doing the same.

Mr. Viola, who kept as many as a hundred birds at a time, won his share of races. But he was best known for sponsoring what was considered one of the most prestigious races of the year, the Frank Viola Invitational, a 400-mile contest in which the birds are released in Ohio and fly back to New York.

Begun in the early 1990s, the invitational is one of the few truly lucrative pigeon races in the country, with a total purse, put up by Mr. Viola, of more than $200,000. (Mr. Viola, who earned his living as a construction supervisor, did well in the stock market, his nephew said.) With his death, the race will no longer be held.

Mr. Viola, whose gruff manner belied the tender care he lavished on his brood — he plied them with vitamins, electrolytes and specially prepared food — was considered an especially fine judge of birdflesh. He could spot one of his own pigeons in a whirling flock a block or two distant, his nephew said. Studying a prospective purchase, he examined its eyes with a jeweler’s loupe, looking for the telltale subtleties of color and form that are believed to indicate prowess.

“He paid thousands of dollars for birds, but he would never sell a bird,” Peter Viola said in a telephone interview on Monday. “If you wanted one, and you came to the house and he liked you, he would give you the bird, with two stipulations: that you don’t sell it and you don’t kill it.”

Frank Peter Viola was born in Brooklyn on Jan. 7, 1920, to a family that kept racing pigeons. (The family name is pronounced vee-OH-lah.) His mother died when he was an infant, and Frank left high school to work with his father, a plasterer from Calabria, Italy.

When the United States entered World War II, Frank Viola enlisted in the Army. He served in five European campaigns and was wounded on the beach at Normandy, his nephew said. Mr. Viola’s pigeons also served: when war was declared, he donated them all to the military, which often used the birds to carry messages across enemy lines.


Today, pigeon racing is mostly an old man’s game. In the postwar years, there were scores of racing clubs in the greater New York area; perhaps a dozen survive. But even now, on certain fine Saturdays and Sundays, one can see men tautly poised on the city’s rooftops, scanning the sky for a few distant specks winging home.

Make sure you read the original article--there's a charming photo of Mr. Viola and his birds.