If you happen to be in the vicinity of the Brooklyn Navy Yard over the next several weekends and happen to spot something incredibly strange in the skies overhead, don’t be alarmed — it isn’t end times. The couple thousand birds swooping through the air are supposed to be glowing.

In fact, said birds are a troupe of pigeons performing in a highly anticipated avian light installation — a “public artwork of unprecedented scale and beauty” — conceived and orchestrated by Boston-reared, Brooklyn-based artist-cum-history-obsessed rabble-rouser Duke Riley. Each of the 2,000 pigeons used in Riley’s “Fly By Night” is outfitted with a tiny remote-controlled LED light tucked into a leg band where a message would traditionally be placed.

Once Riley emits a single whistle and the flock is released en masse from a series of 80-foot-long coops — “waterfront luxury lofts” as Riley refers to them in the New York Times — installed on a decommissioned aircraft carrier moored at the Navy Yard, the birds take to the darkening skies above Wallabout Bay where they swoop and swirl in a 30-minute aerial procession. Presenting organization, the site-specific arts nonprofit Creative Time, calls the installation a “transcendent union of public art and nature.”

To be clear, the spellbinding choreography on display during “Fly by Night” will vary from night to night as the pigeons did not train to learn a specific pattern of movements and maneuvers. The pigeons, well, improvise before returning to their coops when signaled by Riley to do so. “It will be different every time,” Riley explains to WSJ Magazine. “Some will do figure-eights, others will fly high, or maybe they will all stay in one flock. Ultimately, the birds will do what they want to do. It’s not a circus show. It’s more of a collaboration than a performance.”

The inaugural public performance of “Fly by Night” is set to take place May 7 with subsequent performances scheduled every weekend at dusk through June 12. Free tickets to access a viewing area at the Brooklyn Navy Yard are sold-out through the entire run although those interested in attending Riley’s rock dove spectacular can join a wait list.

A resident of the increasingly un-sleepy Brooklyn waterfront neighborhood of Red Hook, Riley, 43, is somewhat of an old hand at the art of pigeon keeping having raised the exceptionally intelligent domesticated birds for most of his adult life. (The artist, a steampunk Doctor Doolittle of sorts, is a friend to many types of animals, apparently). Formerly a working-class Italian enclave that's low-slung and surrounded by water, Red Hook, it would seem, is the perfect place for a pigeon fancier to call home. After all, Red Hook inspired the rough-and-tumble backdrop depicted in "On the Waterfront," Elia Kazan's gritty 1954 Oscar winner that stars Marlon Brando as a pigeon-keeping dockworker.

Many of Riley's “Fly By Night” collaborators, which include several pigeon breeds such as rollers, tumblers, homers, Russian highflyers and the venerable Damascene, are members of his personal Red Hook flock. Others are on loan from fellow members of New York City's close-knit pigeon fancying community.

As Riley explains to the New York Times, roughly two-thirds of the birds that appear in “Fly By Night” are rescues acquired from “people I knew in the pigeon community in New York who were forced to give up their birds.” The Times mentions residential development and landlord squabbles as being two culprits in the decline in the city's once-thriving pigeon keeping scene, a scene popularized during the early- and mid-20th century by European immigrants. (Today, only a couple hundred of active pigeon fanciers remain in the five boroughs, down from thousands in the 1960s.)

“I want to draw attention to the challenges people who raise pigeons face now. Immigrant groups have been forced out of their old neighborhoods, breaking connections passed on from father to son," Riley explains to WSJ Magazine.

Duke Riley and his pigeons Arguably Brooklyn-based artist Duke Riley's least booze-soaked project to date, 'Fly by Night' features an array of domestic pigeon breeds including homers, rollers, tipplers and tumblers. Many of the birds that will appear in the show are part of Riley's own rooftop flock. (Photo: Will Star/Shooting Stars Pro courtesy Creative Time)

This isn’t the first time that Riley, who has also found success as a tattoo shop proprietor, printmaker and renegade barkeeper, has incorporated pigeons into his largely nautical-themed art. As part of his 2013 installation “Trading with the Enemy,” Riley trained 50 Cuban cigar-smuggling pigeons to make the 90-mile journey flight from Havana to Key West. Eleven of the birds completed the mission, six of them carrying the contraband Cohibas. A few of the surviving birds, including homers Roman Polanski and Pablo Escobar, will return for “Fly by Night.”

While “Trading with the Enemy” acted as a pointed commentary on the U.S. embargo on Cuba, “Fly by Night” serves as both a poignant love letter to the vanishing tradition of rooftop pigeon keeping and a call for New Yorkers to wake up — and look up. “A lot of people don’t pay attention to the natural world; they just look down at their cell phones,” Riley tells WSJ Magazine. “We’re more disconnected from nature all the time.”

And the fact that "Fly by Night" is being staged at Brooklyn Navy Yard couldn’t be more fitting. The historic shipyard, now a bustling creative and manufacturing hub sporting both a rooftop organic farm and a sprawling film studio, was, once upon a time, home to the a sizable fleet of messenger pigeons. Back in the day, the U.S. military-operated coop, the largest in the country, was located on Cob Dock, a small artificial island at the Navy Yard.

In a sense, “Fly by Night,” however ephemeral, acts as a homecoming. The birds have come back home to roost, if only for just a few weeks.

Duke Riley and his pigeons Duke Riley's non-pigeon-centric projects include constructing pop-up speakeasies from junk and launching a plywood replica of a Revolutionary War-era submarine in Brooklyn's Buttermilk Channel. The voyage proved to be an ill-fated when he was arrested for coming too close to an idle cruise ship. (Photo: Will Star/Shooting Stars Pro courtesy Creative Time)

This all said, the hardworking stars of “Fly by Night,” which, when in action, will resemble shooting stars (or maybe mutant fireflies), are receiving exceptional care. The birds' spacious, specifically designed maritime lofts on Wallabout Bay are tended to by a dedicated team of “pigeon attendants” while an avian veterinarian has been retained to work alongside Riley. Pigeon fancying organizations and animal welfare groups also played a crucial role in the development of the project. And unlike past Riley installations that have been a touch more more renegade in nature, all the necessary permits were secured for "Fly by Night."

And, yes, the LED-holding leg bands are removed from all 2,000 birds twice a week so that they can properly clean themselves. Established feathered compadres like Pablo Escobar and Roman Polanski (pigeons are socially monogamous) will be kept together during the duration of the project.

Even before officially opening, "Fly by Night" has garnered a ringing endorsement from the Wild Bird Fund with director Rita McMahon claiming that it "will have a transformative effect on avian welfare by helping us see that the life in the sky — from the under-appreciated pigeon to migratory marathoners — is one of nature’s superb art forms, one we can cherish everyday just by looking up.”

As mentioned, tickets to access the official "Fly by Night" venue at Brooklyn Navy Yard are completely booked. But fear not, the show can also be viewed from numerous areas along the East River spanning from the Manhattan Bridge to the Williamsburg Bridge. After all, a flock of 2,000 illuminated pigeons circling over the Brooklyn waterfront is kind of hard to miss.

Via [NY Times], [WSJ Magazine]

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.