Columba livia

Mankind began domesticating animals twelve thousand years ago.  Many mammals were bred for food and milk, and dogs became a trusted guardian and hunting companion.  The first bird to be domesticated was the pigeon; there are records of this taking place 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets.

A History of the World in 100 Objects
A History of the World in 100 Objects (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like so many of the other animals the birds were kept for food initially; the young birds generally grow to a good size before they fledge, making them an attractive option for breeders.  At this stage they were no different to any other food source, but pigeons became so much more.

In the North of England (and many other parts of the world) there is a tradition of pigeon racing, a culture of breeding and raising pigeons that produced two objectives – race winners and show pigeons.

The first of these is based on the birds uncanny homing ability, they are able to return home over distances of 1000km even from locations that they have never been to before.  One bird has been recorded “homing” from 1200 miles away.  It is this ability that gave pigeons a new and more important role; from the late 19th Century until WWII the birds were used to carry messages in war-time – leading to occasions where some birds have even been awarded medals!

To pigeon fanciers they are “the thoroughbreds of the air”, but there is a downside.  So many domesticated birds returned to the wild that our cities are now home to flocks of feral pigeons with a less attractive brand – “rats with wings”.  The mess they leave can certainly be a problem ( Genesis asked “Who put fifty tons of shit on the Foreign Office roof?” on their ep Spot the Pigeon ), but they have a less justified reputation as carriers of disease.

The pest control companies have a vested interest in telling us how dirty and dangerous the birds are, although an attempt to pass the deadly h5n1 bird flu virus by dosing pigeons with a 1000 times normal strength concentration failed to infect them.

Some cities use raptors to control the populations, but today I encountered something I wasn’t expecting.  A gull eating a pigeon!  My wife was queasy watching this (she’d rather see a gull eating its natural diet of Gregg’s pasty!) but I thought why not – they’re certainly tasty!  I don’t think it will catch on as pest control though since gull populations are as popular as pigeons.

Trafalgar Square was once famous for the large numbers of pigeons there (encouraged by the sale of corn to tourists) though this has declined since Ken Livingstone banned feeding.  Photographs of Nelson atop his column with a pigeon on his head are a London icon.

In Newcastle I’ve shot similar pictures of Grey’s monument (sculpted by the same artist as Nelson), but the open area at the foot of column isn’t populated by pigeons so it becomes a popular rendezvous spot or simply somewhere to take the weight of your feet, which is where I met Paulo today.  Originally from Portugal, he holidayed here 10 years ago, met a girl and the rest is history.  He works at Grainger Market that I mentioned recently, and in his words “has everything I need here”.  Nice.

He clearly has overcome the homing instinct.

This shot of Paulo is one of my favourites of the year so far and I’ve processed it in a slightly different way – let me know what you think by leaving a comment below.

G Spot

I commented in an earlier blog about how much of Newcastle had been replaced by concrete in the 1960’s during a period of “improvement” in the city that was portrayed in the BBC serial Our Friends in the NorthThankfully the area known as Grainger Town was spared the attention of those behind the new developments, and 15 years or so ago The Grainger Town Project was established to regenerate the area.

The buildings in this part of town are Neoclassical in style, and of the four hundred or so buildings in the area, over half have “listed” status, and Grey Street was voted “Best Street in the UK” in 2002 by Radio 4 listeners.

Grey Street, Newcastle upon Tyne. Image lighte...
Grey Street, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The people responsible for this architectural beauty were John Clayton (the Town Clerk, after whom Clayton Street is named), architects John Dobson and Thomas Oliver (though few know of the latter who doesn’t have a street name!) and the builder, Richard Grainger, after whom Grainger Street is named.

At the centre of Grainger Town lies Grainger Market, a place in the heart of the city that many a visitor might never be aware of; indeed as someone who worked in “the Toon” for a number of years I can probably number my visits there in single figures.

I was meeting a friend for coffee today and took the opportunity to shield my camera from the continuing rain by using the market as a covered short cut, and was surprised by how light and airy the place was.  I’ve visited other indoor markets in the UK; Sunderland, Durham, Darlington and Leeds among them, and maybe this is where I have built up the impression of dimly lit places with a unique smell from the amount of raw meat on sale within them.

Grainger Market did begin as a building with two distinct halves, one selling meat and the other selling vegetables, and though a number of other retailers have settled there since, (including what must be the smallest branch of Marks & Spencer), there are still plenty of butchers and greengrocers there today, and much of the produce looked fantastic.  It is clearly popular with local students so must provide good value, although another factor might be at play here.

Whilst most of us in the UK have lost touch with specialist food retailing through years of supermarket shopping, for people in many other parts of the world, the local market is at the heart of the community.  Consequently there are plenty of foreign faces walking the aisles (or alley’s as they are sign posted).

I was a few minutes early for my meeting, so waited for a few minutes in the doorway of the market opposite the cafe and looked for a suitable subject.  Just as my friend Shirley was arriving I spotted Esther leaving though the same portal.  I think she was a little surprised at my request but still made a beautiful picture, and as a Spaniard she brings something new to my portraiture project.  What do you think?