27 April 2023
What’s going on in the British Library at night? A creamy-brown mottled feather with a broken quill might shed light on some unexpected activities.
A feather was spotted on a sunny crisp lunch break walk on 15 February 2023. [Fig. 1, 2]
The feather lay on the moss carpet of the second-floor terrace garden, behind the Barbara Hepworth sculpture and the pergola of the British Library (BL) St. Pancras site under a four-floor high wall [Fig. 3, 4]. The wall may hold the key to the enigmatic feather. [Fig. 5].
The shady moss-garden is one of the least exposed public green areas in the BL [Fig. 6].
Compared with reliably identified woodcock feathers from a bird found dead in a private garden a couple of years ago, our feather showed striking similarities. But it was just hard to imagine what a woodcock would be doing on the BL Floor Two. Woodcocks are elusive nocturnal woodland birds with a preference for the area between forests and fields 
It’s a woodcock!
Having contacted the Angela Marmont Centre for the UK Biodiversity at the Natural History Museum in London (AMC-NHM), the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) https://www.rspb.org.uk/ and experienced London-based naturalists, we got confirmation that the feather indeed belonged to a woodcock (Scolopax rusticola Linnaeus, 1758). [Fig. 7]
It is an exciting thought that woodcocks might be around the British Library.
In addition to expert knowledge, we also received helpful resources: a reference image of woodcock feathers; link to Featherbase, a website where exhibits of feathers of a range of species can be studied, several blog posts, and recommendation of a book: Tracks and Signs of the Birds of Britain and Europe 
But what would a woodcock be doing on the BL Floor Two?
The 18th century Welsh naturalist Thomas Pennant started the description of woodcocks in his British Zoology (1776)  with discussion of their migration, as if it were their most important feature [Fig. 8, 9, 10]:
“These birds during summer are inhabitants of the Alps, of Norway, Sweden, Polish, Prussia, the march of Brandenburg, and the northern parts of Europe: they all retire from those countries the beginning of winter, as soon as the frost commence; which force them into milder climates, where the ground is open, and adapted to their manner of feeding.“ 
Pennant did not mention woodcocks in London.
Pennant’s book is part of the King’s Library collection in the British Library. The style of binding is called ‘Tree calf’; an acidic mixture is applied to the leather to create the effect. The coat of arms could have been added at any time – as we learned from Philippa Marks and John Goldfinch, Curators of Bookbinding. Descriptions of the books and pamphlets in the King's Library (shelved in specific shelfmark ranges: 1.a.1 – 304.k.23 and C.1.a.1 – C.16.i.16) appear in Explore the British Library. Most volumes can be ordered into the Rare Books and Music Reading Room using Explore.
Late 19th century bird books, including the ‘London Birds and Beasts’ already made reference to woodcocks in London [4, 5, 6]:
“In the autumn and early winter woodcocks often drop in town [London] sometimes in most extraordinary places, the overhead wires being in many cases, no doubt, accountable for their appearance.” 
The 21st century ‘London Bird Atlas’ features high numbers of woodcock observations plotted on a London map .
Most woodcocks in London are winter visitors, arriving in Britain and Ireland between October- December from their breeding sites in the north including Scandinavia, Finland and Russia (from as far as Siberia) . The Eurasian woodcocks’ migration routes and timing is explored by Woodcock Watch organised by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust by tagging individual birds.
Migration is a high-risk activity for these birds. In addition to being hunted in large numbers, they can be blown off-course and drowned during storms when crossing the sea. Woodcocks can also starve when they cannot replenish their energy if the soil freezes over and they cannot access their food: worms, soil-dwelling insects [Fig. 11].
Their feeding habit is captured in the woodcock’s Romanian name: sitar (from the noun sită: colander, sieve). Sitar can be translated as ‘colander maker’. In this case, it refers to the birds making the ground look like a colander, full of holes, as they poke the soil in search of worms – explained Florin Feneru, Identification and Advisory Officer, at the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, The Natural History Museum.
With the increase of tall buildings in London (and other cities), especially with glass windows that woodcocks might perceive as water bodies and fly directly towards them, the exhausted migrating birds can get disoriented and collide with walls when they fly over at night [9, 10]. Predation poses additional hazards: peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) have been spotted on live web camera attacking woodcocks during the peak migration time, November – December .
So, back to the question: How would a woodcock end up in an urban ‘hanging’ garden and disappear with only one broken feather left behind?
Most probably, this was a migrant woodcock, flying over the BL St Pancras site at night. The circumstances of the ill-fated flight are not known but two of several possible scenarios are described here: collision and predation by peregrine.
The unfortunate woodcock might have collided with the tall wall of the BL [Fig. 5] when it was flying over central London at night on its migration from the breeding sites in the north. After the collision, the bird might have dropped to the moss garden where a fox (Vulpes vulpes) found it, grabbed it, leaving one broken feather behind, then hurried away with its ‘take-away’.
A peregrine (Falco peregrinus) could have captured the woodcock and torn it apart while sitting on the high wall ledge above the moss garden. One of the broken feathers of the fast feast made its way down to the moss-carpet.
Both foxes and peregrines have been spotted around the BL St Pancras site. The break on the quill could not have happened by the impact of a fallen bird or its feather but more likely by active force.
When did the feather get separated from the bird?
The woodcock feather was found on 15 February 2023. But it is not known when the feather landed in the place where it was found, the time of the woodcock’s demise. As the majority of continental woodcocks leave the UK during late February and early March to breed [10, 12] the woodcock could have perished either in the autumn or an early homebound flight in the spring migration.
The significance of the feather: monitoring urban wildlife for wildlife-inclusive cities
Wildlife monitoring benefits from citizen science, also referred to as community science. The woodcock feather identification engaged both citizen scientists and professional ornithologists. The feather story generated a peer-reviewed observation, uploaded to iRecord, a UK citizen science biodiversity monitoring tool. iRecord feeds into the National Biodiversity Atlas, a source of evidence for decision making about the natural environment. We hope observations like our woodcock feather will ultimately contribute to evidence-based wildlife-inclusive urban development 
The collaboration of libraries, museums, conservation charities and citizen scientists presents a so far under-utilised approach to wildlife conservation. The quick and generous response to our feather query from AMC-NHM, RSPB, and London-based naturalists [Fig. 12] shows the professional strengths of UK wildlife monitoring and conservation networks. With growing urban development and increasing complexities of human-wildlife interactions, monitoring urban wildlife is ever more important .
Starts with a walk
The British Library’s remarkable collections are widely known. Yet, the wonders of the Library’s wildlife habitats are under-appreciated. They are here to be discovered for their fabulous biodiversity in addition to provide us with beautiful background. It all starts with a curious walk. The walk becomes a journey of discovery. Curiosity connects wildlife, collections, and people.
Written by Andrea Deri and Greg Smith
We would like to thank to Florin Feneru, Identification and Advisory Officer, Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, The Natural History Museum, London; Hein van Grouw, Senior Curator, Bird Group, Dept. of Life Sciences, The Natural History Museum, Tring; India James, Supporter Adviser, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, UK Headquarters The Lodge Sandy; Philippa Marks, Curator, Bookbindings, Western Heritage Collections, The British Library; John Goldfinch, former Curator, Printed Heritage Collections, Western Heritage Collections, The British Library ; Huw Rowlands, Map Processing Coordinator and Cataloguer, India Office Records Map Collection, The British Library; Henry Wyn-Jones, ecologist, ornithologist, wildlife photographer.
References, links and further readings [BL shelfmark]
 Davis, J., 2023. European woodcocks have the brightest feathers known to exist. Available at: <https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/news/2023/march/european-woodcocks-have-the-brightest-feathers-known-to-exist.html>.
 Brown, R., Ferguson, J., Lawrence, M. and Lees, D., 2021. Tracks & signs of the birds of Britain & Europe. Helm identification guides. London Oxford New York New Delhi Sydney: Bloomsbury Wildlife. page 511 [ELD.DS.659867]
 Pennant, T., 1776. British Zoology. London: Printed for Benj. White. page 365 [40.d.10-13]
 Dixon, C., 1909. The bird-life of London. London: Willam Heinemann. [7285.e.29]
 Tristram-Valentine, J.T., 1895. London Birds and Beasts. London. page 252 [720e.bb.20]
 Swann, H.K., 1893. The birds of London. London. page 103-104 [7285.b.5]
 Woodward, I.D., Arnold, R. and Smith, N., 2017. The London bird atlas. [London], Oxford: London Natural History Society?; John Beaufoy Publishing. page 168 [YKL.209.b.1828]
 RSPB, 2023. Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola). [online] Available at: <https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/woodcock/>.
 RSPB, 2018. Danger low flying woodcock. Available at: <https://www.rspb.org.uk/about-the-rspb/about-us/media-centre/press-releases/danger-low-flying-woodcock/>.
 Hoodless, A.N., Heward, C.J. and Williams, O., 2020. Migration and movements of Woodcocks wintering in Britain and Ireland. British Birds, 113, pp.256–278.
 Davies, E. and Hendry, L., 2022. Peregrine falcons are the top birds in town. Available at: <https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/peregrine-falcons-and-their-city-success.html>.
 Hoodless, A., 2002. Eurasian Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola). In: C. Wernham, ed. The migration atlas: movements of the birds of Britain and Ireland, Repr. 2008. London: T & A D Poyser. pp.319–322. [(B) GC 32]
 Kay, C.A.M., Rohnke, A.T., Sander, H.A., Stankowich, T., Fidino, M., Murray, M.H., Lewis, J.S., Taves, I., Lehrer, E.W., Zellmer, A.J., Schell, C.J. and Magle, S.B., 2022. Barriers to building wildlife-inclusive cities: Insights from the deliberations of urban ecologists, urban planners and landscape designers. People and Nature, [online] 4(1), pp.62–70. https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10283.
 Gaston, K.J. and Evans, K.L., 2010. Urbanization and development. In: N. Maclean, ed. Silent summer: the state of wildlife in Britain and Ireland. Cambridge?; New York: Cambridge University Press.[YK.2010.a.19902]
Birdwatch Magazine [2092.507500]
Birdwatch Monthly [2092.507800]
Hoodless, A. N., 1994. Aspects of the ecology of the European woodcock (Scolopax rusticola L.) [uk.bl.ethos.385917]