Dear Readers, it is of course a law of nature that if I am going to accidentally publish a post before it is ready, many of the photographs will be ‘wrong’. If you received an earlier version of this post, apologies. Hopefully this one will be a little easier on the eye.
There are places in London where the past butts so hard against the present that it’s difficult to keep a grip on both. One of these places is Bunhill Fields, a burial ground tucked away between City Road and Old Street. People have been interred here since the Fourteenth Century, but it is most famous for its Eighteenth and Nineteenth burials of dissenters. John Bunyan is buried here, and so, it is thought, is William Blake. Whilst Bunyan has a fine white tomb with his effigy peacefully resting on top, for Blake there is just a stone, stating that he is thought to be buried somewhere in the graveyard, along with his wife. Some red and white gladioli in a vase stand beside the memorial, in modern-day remembrance of this most eccentric and visionary man, who conversed with angels in his garden, and who saw more clearly than most the connections between the different parts of creation.
The graves here are so old that they have been fenced off to prevent visitors from damaging them. But the main route through the graveyard, on an August weekday lunchtime, is full of office workers going to and fro, clutching their takeaway salads from Pret a Manger and chatting on their mobile phones. Some take a detour to the green behind the Fields, and find themselves a bench beneath the London Plane trees. Others are cutting through at speed. No one is looking at the graves. Perhaps they’ve seen them all before and know how historic this site is. Perhaps they’ve a deadline waiting for them back at their desks, and this is the only leafy-green spot that they’ll see until they pack up this evening.
As usually happens, I am putting down my rucksack and pulling out my camera when a woman with a clipboard approaches. Do I have a kind face, or is there something in my expression that tells her that I am a loiterer rather than a dasher? At any rate, she is from the City of London Authority, and wants to know what I am doing in Bunhill Fields so that she can classify my visit. No doubt all this data is used to consider the worthiness of an open space. Maybe it opens up the world of grants and other funding. The woman shows me a list of reasons for visiting the Fields. Sadly, none of them exactly match what I’m doing here.
‘I am here’, I announce, ‘to photograph the pigeons’.
She is flummoxed. After a moment she makes a decision.
‘I’ll put that down as ‘Other”, she says.
What I am actually doing is taking some photographs of the individual pigeons in the flock that lives here. While it’s tempting to think that all pigeons are the same, they are in fact extraordinarily varied in plumage. I wanted to capture some of that variation, and to have a think about why it might be.
There are two kinds of pigeon colouration which are so common as to be considered ‘normal’. One of these is the ‘Blue Bar’. These birds have two distinct bands on their wings, though the colour of these bands can vary. These are the closest to the wild pigeon, the Rock Dove (Columba livia) from which all pigeons are descended. These often seem to me to be the healthiest looking pigeons as well, though I’m unsure how these facts are related.
The other very common pigeon pattern is the Chequered. Instead of bands on the wing, this type is mottled, usually in shades of dark grey.
I walk on to the green and sit down on a bench. There are about twenty pigeons walking optimistically about, giving the sandwich-munching office-workers a sneaky look as they gallop past, then circling back at the slightest sign of messiness or engagement.
I notice that the birds seem to form sub-flocks, hanging about with other birds that look like them. There are some birds, for example, which show variations on the theme of rust and grey. Technically, these are called ‘Red’ birds and they are very attractive to look at – the rusty colour can infuse their whole breast, or be a kind of patina on top of a basic dove-grey. Three of them follow one another about, and hang hopefully around a man who is eating a cheese baguette whilst talking on his mobile phone. I notice that they approach from behind the bench and snatch the crumbs from behind. Clever birds!
I wonder about this colour segregation as well. I read that pigeons prefer to mate with birds who resemble their parents, so maybe this helps to ‘set’ particular patterns. And if the birds are related, that explains why they seek out one another’s company.
Another frequent colourway is the Black bird. There were several of these in the flock, but, surprisingly, I spotted two birds who were all black except for their white wing feathers. One of these birds had a white blaze on the head as well. He or she looked very exotic, a most unlikely feral pigeon. Maybe these two were siblings.
As I sat and watched, I noticed that the pigeons would often fly off as one, heading for another likely source of food on the other side of the green. As they rose, some of them would slap their wings audibly. I’d always thought that this was a warning, or a display. Here, though, I came to the conclusion that it was a way of telling the other birds that a food source had been discovered – on hearing the ‘slap’ other birds would fly up and join the flock which flew directly to the food source.I have noticed before, in Waterloo Station for example, that the birds are acutely conscious of one another’s behaviour, and if one bird flies down to a source of food, the others will follow suit, even if they can’t see food from their perch. But something different seemed to be going on in Bunhill Fields. Alerting other pigeons, even unrelated ones, to food seems almost altruistic, but then if every bird does it, everyone benefits. There is so much about these ubiquitous creatures that we don’t yet understand. I can almost feel a PhD subject coming on.
I had lots of photographs by now, and so I decided to head back, against the tide. But as I drew level with a tomb, I noticed two pigeons courting on top of it. A Red male and a Blue Bar female were ‘kissing’, fencing with their beaks. Then, the male started to groom the female’s head and neck, while she closed her eyes. Finally, he stepped on top of her and, wings flapping, got down to business. I realised that taking photographs of pigeons mating was probably not very seemly, although the participants didn’t seem to care. And as the stream of humanity passed by, oblivious, the next generation of pigeons was conceived. I’m sure that William Blake would have been delighted.