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.