The Pigeon Queen of Riverside Drive

Long before the ten-million-dollar condos and the big box stores, the Upper West Side was home to Phyllis Bodyn and her pigeons.

I met Phyllis Bodyn on Riverside Drive in 1985. She was eighty-two then, “a maiden lady,” she said. She had been feeding pigeons for thirty years.

Phyllis Bodyn with her pigeons on the Upper West Side, 1985.
Phyllis Bodyn with her pigeons on the Upper West Side, 1985.

This was back when New York was still New York, when there were still neighborhoods. In the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s I would walk the streets of Manhattan and take pictures, even when I wasn’t working on a project. It was people like Phyllis who made New York what it was.

"Mr. Bluebird on my shoulder..."
“Mr. Bluebird on my shoulder…”

“My flock are my dearest friends,” she said. I still remember that because it was so touching that the birds were her closest friends.

For years there was just one flock, but then another bunch of birds a few blocks uptown clamored for adoption, too, and soon she was feeding two flocks.

Birds, birds, everywhere birds.
Birds, birds, everywhere birds.

Every day she walked the three blocks from her apartment to Riverside Drive. When she got there, they all flew out to meet her. Dipping their wings, they escorted her across the street and into the park.

“Hello, David,” she calls. “Tell the gang I’m on my way.”

Pigeons grab a nosh from the palm of Phyllis Bodyn's hand.
Pigeons grab a nosh from the palm of Phyllis Bodyn’s hand.

All the birds have their own names. There’s Brownie and Gentle, Bossy and Cousin, Special, Baby, David, Buffy, Junior and Sergeant.

A squirrel wants in on the bounty.
A squirrel wants in on the bounty.

She feeds the first flock, then moves a few blocks uptown to feed the other.

“Hello, General” she says. “Where’s Limpy?”

“Comin’ to ya, Phyllis,” her feathered friends reply, wheeling in the air like angels welcoming her home.

New York people are the kindest, nicest people around. Everyone’s always surprised by that.

As neighborhoods have been turned into just real estate, it’s the people who don’t exist here anymore. I used to madly love it, but now it’s…well, it’s still New York.

Happiness is a squirming pigeon.
Happiness is a squirming pigeon.

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Jill Freedman is a documentary photographer whose award-winning work is included in the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art, the International Center of Photography, George Eastman House, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the New York Public Library, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, among others. She has appeared in solo and group exhibitions throughout the world, and has contributed to many publications.