Prior to the arrival of Zak Waters‘ Birdmen, I was wholly unaware of pigeon racing. My grandfather kept pigeons for awhile near the end of his life, and I feed dozens of pigeons who roost in the neighbor’s roof tiles and hang around my neighborhood for most of the year. And my mother in law looks at them and remarks what good eating they are, but racing them? I had no idea. Not that I remember, anyway.
Pigeons mate for life. They’re monogamous. Who knew? Probably loads of people, but not me. In England, and all over the world, really, people exploit this lifelong mating for sport, and in times past we used the instinct to send messages across long distances. I remember asking Grandpa if his pigeons were homing pigeons. I don’t recall his reply, but it was probably dismissive, in a disappointing, but friendly, grandfatherly way.
The first third of Birdmen has short text pieces, histories of the sport and stories from a Birdman named Rod Adams, who has been involved with pigeon racing since the 1970s. The stories are funny and moving, logging memories of the men and women involved, and various childhood and adult escapades. The rest is picture after picture of birds flying and roosting, men lounging and talking, or pushing carts loaded with cages, or holding the birds, measuring wings and checking them for fitness and suitability, trucks moving birds from place to place, huge flocks of pigeons emerging from the trucks and flapping around, winging towards home, but looking like scenes from The Birds, etc.
Most of the men are older, and it seems that the pigeon racing scene is slowly passing into history. Young people have too many other distractions, what with phones and all, and the move away from manufacturing and other physical sorts of work that leave time (and encourage) a physical sort of hobby, and towards computer-based work that seems to encourage more consumption-based, more personal hobbies. As advanced capitalism and globalization decimated manufacturing centers in the US and much of Europe, it took many old social arrangements with it.
But the Birdmen are holding on, for now, and Birdmen is a great window into their world.
Overall, I rate Birdmen a strong 4 stars.
I helped Kickstart Birdmen earlier this year, and I’m glad I did. You can get a copy direct from Bluecoat Press, and they’re really very reasonably priced, given the size of the book, quality of the reproductions, and overall quality of the binding. I’m amazed they can offer them for a mere £25. And you can view most (or all?) of Birdmen and a bunch of other projects at Waters’ website. He’s also fairly active on Twitter @ZakWaters, so check him out and maybe give him a follow.