They swoop, they soar, they light up the sky … meet the pigeon-fancier who has trained his flock to wear LEDs and perform a hypnotic night dance
Tue 19 Jun 2018 06.00 BSTLast modified on Tue 19 Jun 2018 10.57 BST
You can see them in the sky long before you get close, circling high above, wheeling and diving between each other, their wings flashing in the sunshine and making a faintly mechanical whirr each time they pass overhead. This vast flock of pigeons, flying over a disused golf course next to a sewage works on the eastern edge of London, has been assembled by Duke Riley, an American artist who has now spent months training these birds to re-enact a show that caused a storm when it hit the night skies over Brooklyn in 2016.
Though genetically similar to feral pigeons, these birds are specialist varieties that were selectively bred over thousands of years for their endurance and acrobatic abilities. “Most are tipplers and rollers,” says Riley. He’s a compact man with blue eyes, a square jaw and hands that look as though they are used to making things. “These are the birds people fly in New York, but they’re all English breeds originally.” There’s something knowingly old-fashioned about Riley. He wears overalls with the word “Duke” embroidered on the pocket and speaks in a hard Boston lilt.
In Europe, most fanciers, as pigeon-keepers are called, are interested in racing: they take their birds away from their lofts and time how long it takes them to fly back. But in the rest of the world, it’s more of a spectator sport. Fanciers will breed a flock (or “kit”) of birds, then train them using flags and whistles to fly tightly together over their loft. In competition, points are awarded for style and time in the air, or for attracting your opponents’ birds into your flock.