Science blog

Exploring science at the British Library

15 August 2023

Wild British Library: Experiences of nature: goldfinch, pigeon and magpie

For us and for nature, facts are not enough. We need stories too.

Facts tell us something. We need facts, yes, but we need more. To understand facts, and for them to help us act, we need to connect with them in a way that is meaningful to us. Sharing our experiences of nature, especially in the form of stories, is one way of making connections, as Andrea Deri mentioned in her recent post. There, she described how naturalists over centuries have told us of their experiences of nature as well as their methodical observations. Although not a naturalist myself, I believe in the power of sharing stories. Here are two memorable experiences I have had at the Library.

A Charm of Goldfinches
Goldfinch: Carduelis carduelis

A goldfinch is seen perched on a twig in close up
Photograph courtesy of Greg Smith. Taken 2 Jan 2021, Alexandra Palace, London.

In the grey white days of one winter I frequently sat quietly in the staff lounge reading and looking out towards the Crick Institute. An occasional pigeon would attract my attention as it sped past. One day stands out in my mind, as I saw a flash of colour as well as movement. For a brief, beautiful moment, six goldfinches grazed on the grey, grassy mounds outside the window before taking to the air for some other, unimagined place.

The Pigeon and the Magpie
(Columba livia domestica and Pica pica)

A magpie is seen in close up perched on a rock
Photograph courtesy of Greg Smith. Taken 16 Oct 2022 at Alexandra Palace, London.

As I remember it now, it was a late winter’s day with just enough warmth and blue sky to raise my anticipation of spring. I was sitting on the piazza in the pale, promising sunlight when I turned my head briskly at a sudden movement sensed out of the corner of my eye. Up on the ornamental green bars at the corner of the Knowledge Centre, a pigeon was struggling to escape, one of its small feet apparently trapped. I winced after each desperate flutter, picturing its body hanging by a tendon in its tiny foot, imagining its pain. As I stared, I became aware of others around me who had also been captivated by the drama high above the ground. We released a collective groan as the drama darkened.
As we stared at the small body, hanging for longer and longer moments between flutters, a flash of black and white swooped and pecked. A magpie had seen an opportunity that none of us unwilling spectators could bear to watch. Nor could we look away. The pigeon, we realised as one mind, was not destined to starve to death, but to be eaten alive. Something the pigeon knew instantly. The magpie swooped again, then a third time, provoking the pigeon into ever more desperate beating of its wings. The magpie found a perch near enough to peck at its leisure, targeting the head and eyes. We tried to turn our eyes away but were irresistibly drawn back. As we began to lose hope, the pigeon made one superlative effort and broke loose. The relief swept through the light air of the piazza, drawing a soft ripple of applause from those of us who had borne witness to one soul who had raged successfully against the dying of the light.

Further Reading

Fischer, D., Fücker, Sonja, editor, & Selm, Hanna, editor. (2022). Narrating sustainability through storytelling. Available in the British Library through Non-Print Legal Deposit
Friedmann, H. (1946). The symbolic goldfinch: Its history and significance in European devotional art. (Bollingen series; 7). Washington: Pantheon Books. Available in the British Library at shelfmark 7868.ff.36
Macfarlane, R. (2019). Underland: A deep time journey. Penguin. Available in the British Library through Non-Print Legal Deposit or at shelfmark YK.2020.a.1303
Moreton, C. (2007). Maid and the Magpie An Interesting Tale Founded on Facts. Project Gutenberg.
Nanson, A. (2021). Storytelling and Ecology : Empathy, Enchantment and Emergence in the Use of Oral Narratives. (Bloomsbury Advances in Ecolinguistics). Available in the British Library through Non-Print Legal Deposit
Thomas, D. (1952). Collected Poems, 1934-1952. [With a portrait.]. J. M. Dent & Sons, 1952. Available in the British Library at shelfmark
Woodward, I., Arnold, Richard, and London Natural History Society. (2017). The London bird atlas. John Beaufoy Publishing Ltd. Available in the British Library at shelfmark YKL.2019.b.1828

By Huw Rowlands, Cataloguer and Processing Coordinator, Western Heritage Collection
Photographs by Greg Smith, ESTC Support, Content and Metadata Processing South