The Pigeons of Bunhill Fields

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.

Two Blue Band pigeons

Two Blue Bar pigeons

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.

Chequered pigeon

Chequered pigeon

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!

Red pigeon in stealth mode

Red pigeon in stealth mode

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.

Black pigeon

Black pigeon

Two almost-Black pigeons, with interesting white wing feathers.

Two almost-Black pigeons, with interesting white wing feathers.

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.



11 thoughts on “The Pigeons of Bunhill Fields

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Thanks, John! I think that we notice the things that we are most passionate about, but it does make me sad that so many people aren’t passionate about anything.

  1. Baldwin Hamey

    Yes, I must agree with the previous comment; it is funny how you miss things other people notice. I fully admit to never having consciously noticed the variety of pigeons. In fact, I cannot recall noticing the pigeons in Bunhill Fields at all, or at least not more than the grass and the general greenyness of the place. I always notice the headstones, and that is perhaps why; humans, after all, can only truly concentrate on one thing at the time. If you are interested in my wanderings there:

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I find it fascinating when people have different interests, and notice different things – I remember doing a geology walk in London once, and being completely stunned by what I’d missed. I sometimes wonder what the streets of London are like for a dog, or a small child, or a classic car enthusiast….I love your emphasis on the small details, and the human stories of the places that you blog about, Baldwin. It’s all the many, varied perspectives on London that enrich our experience of the capital so much.

  2. Maria F.

    Beautiful post. I’m crazy about Rock Pigeons and their patterns. I also read that the male slaps his wings audibly, to announce the female he’s going somewhere and inviting her to follow him. They may do it as a couple already, or when they are single to try to attract a female. I watch them a lot. I’ve seen brownish red males ones reuniting for mysterious reasons. I read they do this because they seek to compare themselves when seeking the females. I’ve also raised several chicks that have fallen from nests.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      That’s fascinating Maria and your comment about the wing-slapping sounds spot on, I’m sure that’s what was happening, thank you !
      Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device

  3. alcsmith

    Really like this post. I used to go through there occasionally when I worked in London. I think the railings, set like a tunnel, almost deter pausing, especially if it is busy and you don’t want to get in the way!

    We mainly seem to have wood pigeons out in the rural-ish shires. I love them, so full of character. A pair have just in the last week taken over an old nest in a big ash tree overhanging our garden. I saw one of them bringing extra twigs. If I was really tall I could peek inside!

  4. Pingback: A Tale of Two Squirrels | Bug Woman – Adventures in London

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