01 August 2023
Wild British Library: The woodpigeon: from woods to trees
The woodpigeon (Columba palumbus L.) is one of the most noticeable birds around the British Library’s St Pancras site.
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 : courtship, posturing, wing fight, thrashing out of the foliage in a conceding flight, or flying over with powerful wingbeats  [Fig.1-5, 11].
It is not only their sociability and size , about 500 grams, the largest  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  the woodpigeon was the most abundant bird during the winter and breeding time surveys in 2008-13.
Woodpigeons have made their home around the British Library in London. They nest in the dense foliage of woody climbers: common ivy (Hedera helix)  and Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) . One of their fledglings was spotted on a chair in March 2023.
Ronald Keir Murton’s monograph  and PhD thesis  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
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].
Turner’s treatise , 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)  and the English translation (1903)  are available online.
Turner’s bird book is a small thin volume that sits comfortably in the hand, without illustrations and pagination. [Fig. 7-8]
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 , owner of one of the British Library’s founding  and named collections , 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]
1884 - Henry Seebohm , 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]
1888 & 1891 - Tristram-Valentine  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  referred to the woodpigeon as “common resident, breeding throughout the [London] Area.”
2010 – Robert A. Robinson , 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 . 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  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.
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.
 Gomez, Africa. ‘Woodpigeon Calls and Displays’. The Rattling Crow (blog), 27 March 2017. http://therattlingcrow.blogspot.com/2017/03/woodpigeons-calls-and-displays.html
 Pedley, William. ‘Woodpigeon Wingbeats’, 26 October 1975. https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/woodpigeon-columba-palumbus-wingbeats.
 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. https://www.bto.org/understanding-birds/birdfacts/woodpigeon
 BTO. ‘Woodpigeon (Columba Palumbus)’, 2023. https://www.bto.org/our-science/projects/gbw/gardens-wildlife/garden-birds/a-z-garden-birds/wood-pigeon
 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]
 Plant Atlas 2020. ‘Common & Atlantic Ivy (Hedera Helix s.l.)’, 2020. https://plantatlas2020.org/atlas/2cd4p9h.95p1tn
 Plant Atlas 2020. ‘Virginia-Creeper (Parthenocissus Quinquefolia (L.) Planch.)’, 2020. https://plantatlas2020.org/atlas/2cd4p9h.n0d
 Murton, R. K. The Wood-Pigeon. The New Naturalist. London: Collins, 1965. [(B) GD 29 (C5)]
 Murton, R. K. ‘The Ecology of Wood-Pigeon Populations with Special Reference to Their Breeding Biology’. PhD, University of Liverpool, 1962. https://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?did=1&uin=uk.bl.ethos.287121
 Turner, William. Avium Praecipuarum Quarum apud Plinium et Aristotlem Mentio Est Brevis & Succinta Historia, 1544. [976.f.4 and 954.b.11]
 Turner, William. Avium Praecipuarum Quarum apud Plinium et Aristotlem Mentio Est Brevis & Succinta Historia, 1544. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=s106AAAAcAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=thumbnail&q&f=false
 Turner, William. Avium Praecipuarum Quarum apud Plinium et Aristotlem Mentio Est Brevis & Succinta Historia. Cantabrigiae: typis academicis excudebat Joan Smith, 1823. https://access.bl.uk/item/viewer/ark:/81055/vdc_100036705079.0x000001#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=0&xywh=-1142%2C-120%2C3535%2C2346
 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.] https://doi.org/10.5962/bhl.title.160035.
 British Library. ‘Sloane Printed Books Catalogue’, 1 February 2023. https://www.bl.uk/projects/sloane-printed-books
 British Library. ‘The Foundation Collections’, 2023. https://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/TourCollFound.asp
 British Library. ‘Major Named Collections of Printed Books’, 2023. https://www.bl.uk/collection-guides/major-named-collections-of-printed-books-now-in-the-british-library
 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 https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/bibliography/12367
 Tristram-Valentine, J.T. London Birds and Beasts. London, 1895. [7206.bb.20]
 Homes, R.C. The Birds of the London Area since 1900. The New Naturalist. London:
Collins, 1957. pp. 211-212 [W.P. 12018/12]
 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]
 RSPB. ‘The Results from across the UK Have Landed!’ Big Garden Birdwatch, 2023. https://www.rspb.org.uk/get-involved/activities/birdwatch/