Science blog

Exploring science at the British Library

01 August 2023

Wild British Library: The woodpigeon: from woods to trees

A woodpigeon, a plump grey bird with a pinkish breast, is seen in close up perched on a wall
Figure 1 Woodpigeon (Columba palumbus) is alert, ready to take off (13 June 2023) British Library, St Pancras Photo: Andrea Deri

The woodpigeon (Columba palumbus L.) is one of the most noticeable birds around the British Library’s St Pancras site.

Left: a pigeon is seen from a distance perched on a wall at the British Library. Right: a pigeon is seen standing on the ground on wooden slatted flooring
Figure 2 Woodpigeon perches high (11 June 2023) and waddles low, searching for food under the terrace tables (22 May 2022) British Library, St Pancras Photo: Andrea Deri

This affable plump bird can be seen perching high on building edges, waddling low on the ground in search of food or engaged in a variety of social behaviour [1]: courtship, posturing, wing fight, thrashing out of the foliage in a conceding flight, or flying over with powerful wingbeats [2] [Fig.1-5, 11].

Two pigeons are seen on the ground facing each other, one with a crest erected and with its head beneath the other's
Figure 3 Woodpigeon courtship (12 June 2023) British Library, St Pancras, Photo: Andrea Deri

It is not only their sociability and size [3], about 500 grams, the largest [4] pigeon in the UK avifauna, but also their sheer number that makes the woodpigeon easy to spot throughout the year. According to The London Bird Atlas [5] the woodpigeon was the most abundant bird during the winter and breeding time surveys in 2008-13.

Left: a pigeon is seen close up among green leaves. Right: a similar view from a distance
Figure 4 Woodpigeon nest in ivy (Hedera helix) (11 June 2022) and in Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) (7 July 2023) British Library, St Pancras, Photo: Andrea Deri

Woodpigeons have made their home around the British Library in London. They nest in the dense foliage of woody climbers: common ivy (Hedera helix) [6] and Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) [7]. One of their fledglings was spotted on a chair in March 2023.

A fledgling woodpigeon (paler coloured and thinner than the adult) is seen perched on the back of a metal chair against a background of greenery
Figure 5 Woodpigeon fledgling near a nest in ivy (22 March 2023) British Library, St Pancras, Photo: Andrea Deri

Ronald Keir Murton’s monograph [8] and PhD thesis [9] provide comprehensive overviews of the woodpigeon’s biology, ecology, and behaviour.

Timeline: from woods to trees

The woodpigeon, as its name suggests, was once only associated with forests and woods. The timeline of its journey from woods to trees, from the countryside to the city is revealed by ornithologists’ observations:

1544 – 1884 – 1888 – 1891 – 1957 – 2010 – 2014 – 2023
Woods                     Trees

1544 - William Turner, a physician and natural historian, referred to the woodpigeon as the “coushot” or “ringged dove” and described it as a forest dwelling bird [Fig. 6-7].

Pages of a printed book in Latin, with the English words "a ringged dove" underlined in ink
Figure 6 The woodpigeon’s name in Greek, Latin, English and German in William Turner’s Avium praecipuarum quarum apud Plinium et Aristotlem mentio est brevis & succinta historia (1544): British Library, Shelfmark 976.f.4

Turner’s treatise [10], written in Latin, is considered the oldest printed book dedicated to birds. It lists bird species mentioned by Aristotle and Pliny with Turner’s own observations.

Both the Latin editions (1544, 1823) [11] and the English translation (1903) [12] are available online.

Two pages of a hardbound book, held down with a book snake.
Figure 7 Description of the woodpigeon in William Turner’s Avium praecipuarum quarum apud Plinium et Aristotlem mentio est brevis & succinta historia (1544): British Library, Shelfmark 976.f.4

Turner’s bird book is a small thin volume that sits comfortably in the hand, without illustrations and pagination. [Fig. 7-8]

The spine of an old hardbacked book, and the closed book next to a paperback and a pair of binoculars
Figure 8 Spine, size comparison with a recent birdwatcher’s guide & binoculars: William Turner’s Avium praecipuarum quarum apud Plinium et Aristotlem mentio est brevis & succinta historia (1544): British Library, Shelfmark 976.f.4

The British Library has two copies of Turner’s bird book. The copy at shelfmark 976.f.4 is particularly interesting because it belonged probably to Sir Hans Sloane [13], owner of one of the British Library’s founding [14] and named collections [15], now controversial due to his wife's inheritance of money obtained from slave-worked Jamaican sugar plantations. The black octagonal stamp “Museum Britannicum” on the title page verso was intended to distinguish Sloane’s books alone but later acquisitions were also stamped with it. [Fig.9]

The title page of a book, held open with a book snake. On the opposite page is a stamp of a horizontally stretched hexagon containing, in capitals, the words MVSEUM BRITANICVM
Figure 9 The black octagonal stamp “Museum Britannicum” marked items of the Sloane Collection including William Turner’s Avium praecipuarum quarum apud Plinium et Aristotlem mentio est brevis & succinta historia (1544): British Library, Shelfmark 976.f.4


1884 - Henry Seebohm [16], steel manufacturer and amateur ornithologist, portrayed the woodpigeon a “common resident in the wooded districts” of England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland, except those tame ones living in Paris’ and Berlin’s parks. [Fig. 10]

The title page and a text page of a printed hardback book
Figure 10 Henry Seebohm: A history of British Birds with coloured illustrations of their eggs, 4 volumes (1884): title page and page 396 in vol. 2, British Library, Shelfmark 7287.c.2.

1888 & 1891 - Tristram-Valentine [17] solicitor and amateur ornithologist, was genuinely surprised to see woodpigeons in London:

“Probably the last bird that a countryman would expect to find in London would be the ringdove or, as it is more commonly called, the woodpigeon; yet this bird, though not by any means common, is generally to be seen in the Parks, and certainly claim to be included in any list of London birds […].” (25 February 1888; page 193)

“It is certainly curious that a bird naturally so wild and wary as the wood-pigeon should so alter its habit as to live the year through in parks even as large as those of the West End, surrounded as they are by miles of streets and buildings.” (25 February 1888; page 193)

Three years later transformative change happened. The woodpigeon became “the most noticeable” London bird according to Tristram-Valentine:

“The enormous increase during the last few years in the number of wood-pigeons frequenting the London Parks must have struck the least observant. Formerly a few pairs bred there every year, Kensington Gardens and the grounds of Buckingham Palace being their favourite nesting-places ; but a few years since their numbers began to increase, and they are now— sparrows always excepted—the commonest of London birds, and are certainly, without any exception, the most noticeable.“ (4 July 1891 page 238)

1957 – The Committee of the London Natural History Society [18] referred to the woodpigeon as “common resident, breeding throughout the [London] Area.”

2010 – Robert A. Robinson [19], senior scientists of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) discussed the woodpigeon as a species of the towns and gardens habitats, not in woodlands and scrubs. Robinson listed the woodpigeon as one of the eight bird species typical of urban and suburban areas, “house sparrow, starling, blackbird, magpie, collared dove, greenfinch, carrion crow, and increasingly woodpigeon.”

2023 - BTO also refers to the woodpigeon as a common bird that can be seen across a range of habitats [3]. In addition to the woodpigeon’s biology and ecology, BTO also discusses various anthropogenic drivers of the woodpigeon’s population increase, 153% (1967-2020).

In the 2023 RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch [20] the woodpigeon ranked fourth. It was seen in 76.8% of gardens (after the robin 84.5%, blackbird 82.5%, and blue tit 77.5%). This list shows that the woodpigeon is one of the most noticeable birds not only at the British Library’s St Pancras site but also in the UK.

A pigeon sitting on a concrete slab, its legs and feet invisible.
Figure 11 Woodpigeon resting (13 June 2023) British Library, St Pancras Photo: Andrea Deri

People and wildlife

When naturalists take note of their observations, they record not only what species they see, where, when and in what numbers, but also their thoughts and feelings about wildlife as some of the quotes above illustrate. This human connection makes their stories not only appealing but also indicative of their, the birdwatchers’ relationship with wildlife.
Given its size, tameness, and uninhibited social life the woodpigeon offers one of the best opportunities, if not the best, for people, all of us, to watch their behaviour closely, learn about their daily and seasonal routines, and connect with these birds.

The woodpigeon’s influence on people’s connection with wildlife cannot be underestimated.

Posted by Andrea Deri, Cataloguer


Ann McDermott, ESTC Cataloguer, Early Printed Collections, British Library for providing resources related to William Turner’s Avium (1544).
Dr Karen Limper-Herz, Lead Curator, Incunabula and Sixteenth Century Printed Books and Greg Smith, ESTC Support for their suggestions.

References and further readings [British Library shelfmark]

All URLs were accessed on 10 July 2023.

[1] Gomez, Africa. ‘Woodpigeon Calls and Displays’. The Rattling Crow (blog), 27 March 2017.
[2] Pedley, William. ‘Woodpigeon Wingbeats’, 26 October 1975.
[3] BTO. ‘Woodpigeon (Columba palumbus) (Linnaeus, 1758)’. BirdFacts: Key information about the UK’s birds and their changing fortunes, based on data collected by BTO and partner organisations., 2023.
[4] BTO. ‘Woodpigeon (Columba Palumbus)’, 2023.
[5] Woodward, Ian D., Richard Arnold, and Neil Smith. The London Bird Atlas. [London], Oxford: London Natural History Society; John Beaufoy Publishing, 2017. [YKL.2019.b.1828]
[6] Plant Atlas 2020. ‘Common & Atlantic Ivy (Hedera Helix s.l.)’, 2020.
[7] Plant Atlas 2020. ‘Virginia-Creeper (Parthenocissus Quinquefolia (L.) Planch.)’, 2020.
[8] Murton, R. K. The Wood-Pigeon. The New Naturalist. London: Collins, 1965. [(B) GD 29 (C5)]
[9] Murton, R. K. ‘The Ecology of Wood-Pigeon Populations with Special Reference to Their Breeding Biology’. PhD, University of Liverpool, 1962.
[10] Turner, William. Avium Praecipuarum Quarum apud Plinium et Aristotlem Mentio Est Brevis & Succinta Historia, 1544. [976.f.4 and 954.b.11]
[11] Turner, William. Avium Praecipuarum Quarum apud Plinium et Aristotlem Mentio Est Brevis & Succinta Historia, 1544.
[11] Turner, William. Avium Praecipuarum Quarum apud Plinium et Aristotlem Mentio Est Brevis & Succinta Historia. Cantabrigiae: typis academicis excudebat Joan Smith, 1823.
[12] Turner, William. Turner on Birds?: A Short and Succinct History of the Principal Birds Noticed by Pliny and Aristotle First Published by Doctor William Turner, 1544. Translated by A. H. Evans. Cambridge?: University Press, 1903. [7285.dd.9.]
[13] British Library. ‘Sloane Printed Books Catalogue’, 1 February 2023.
[14] British Library. ‘The Foundation Collections’, 2023.
[15] British Library. ‘Major Named Collections of Printed Books’, 2023.
[16] Seebohm, Henry. A History of British Birds, with Coloured Illustrations of Their Eggs. 4
volumes vols. London: R. H. Porter, 1883-85. [7287.c.2.], also online at
[18] Tristram-Valentine, J.T. London Birds and Beasts. London, 1895. []
[19] Homes, R.C. The Birds of the London Area since 1900. The New Naturalist. London:
Collins, 1957. pp. 211-212 [W.P. 12018/12]
[20] Robinson, Robert A. ‘State of Bird Populations in Britain and Ireland’. In Silent Summer: The State of Wildlife in Britain and Ireland, edited by Norman Maclean, 281–318. Cambridge?; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. [YK.2010.a.19902]
[21] RSPB. ‘The Results from across the UK Have Landed!’ Big Garden Birdwatch, 2023.