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41 posts categorized "Environmental science"

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.

09 June 2023

Wild British Library: The ant and the three-cornered garlic

Summer has arrived but some spring flowers are still around in British Library’s St Pancras site’s Floor 3 Garden. This three-cornered garlic (Allium triquetrum L. 1753) is one of them [1,2]. It was prominent with its white flowers in May and covered half of the terrace’s wild area. Now, when its seeds are in the process of maturation, when its wilting leaves and stalks are lying on other plants and on the ground, they are less noticeable. However, they are worth finding. Something exciting is happening around the three-cornered garlic’s black seeds.

A white wild garlic flower hangs from a stem in close up
Three-cornered garlic (Allium triquetrum L. 1753), 30-45 cm, in flower on 4 May 2023, Floor 3 Garden, The British Library St Pancras, London Photo: Andrea Deri
Close-up view of a garlic stem showing its triangular cross-section
The triangular (slightly winged) structure and rather familiar smell of garlic or leek is easy to feel when you roll the stalk of the three-cornered garlic between your fingers. Its Latin name refers to these qualities. The first name, Allium, refers to the onion genus; the second name, its species name within the genus, triquetrum, Latin for triangular in cross-section. 2 May 2023, Floor 3 Garden, The British Library St Pancras, London Photo: Andrea Deri


View of a bed of wild garlic plants with modern office buildings in the background
Three-cornered garlic covered half of the terrace’s wild area. 11 May 2023, Floor 3 Garden, The British Library St Pancras, London Photo: Andrea Deri
A group of bell-shaped wild garlic flowers hanging from a stem
The wilting stalk and flowers are resting on other plants and the ground as the seeds are maturing. 25 May 2023, Floor 3 Garden, The British Library St Pancras, London Photo: Methaporn Singhanan


The white shiny oil-containing cap-like appendage on the black seed of the three-cornered garlic, called the elaiosome indicates a mutually beneficial plant-animal relationship [3]: myrmecochory, seed dispersal by ants[4,5].

Both terms, elaiosome and myrmecochory are combinations of Greek words.

Elaiosome: oil-containing appendage on the seed that “attracts” ants.

έλαιον (elaion)  - oil, oily substance[6]

σώμα (soma) – body[7]

Myrmecochory: seed dispersal by ants; literally: dance or movement of ants.

μυρμηξ   μυρμηκος (myrmex, myrmekos) - ant, ants[8]

χoρεια  (choreia) - dance, choral dance with music and also movement of animals[9]

A head of garlic flowers showing white flowers, green closed fruit, and opened fruit with black seeds and white jelly
Under the white petals the bulky green fruit encapsulates black seeds with white appendages. 25 May 2023, Floor 3 Garden, The British Library St Pancras, London Photo: Methaporn Singhanan
Close-up view of a green garlic fruit
Wrapped around white petals the translucent green bulky fruit reveals the black seeds inside. 25 May 2023, Floor 3 Garden, The British Library St Pancras, London Photo: Methaporn Singhanan


A green garlic fruit, split open to show the black seeds and white jelly
Having opened the green bulky fruit one of the black seeds with shiny white appendage, the elaiosome, oil containing body, becomes visible. 25 May 2023, Floor 3 Garden, The British Library St Pancras, London Photo: Methaporn Singhanan

Attracted by the elaiosome, ants pick up it up with the seed, which together are often larger than the ants’ body, carry it to their nest, eat and feed their young ants with the nutritious oily tissue of the elaiosome, and then dump the stripped seed away from their nest. 

A black seed with a piece of white jelly attached, shown next to a toothed piece of white plastic
The elaiosome (white cap on the dark seed) is about the same size as one tooth of a recycled plastic table knife in the canteen. 25 May 2023, Floor 3 Garden, The British Library St Pancras, London Photo: Methaporn Singhanan
A garlic seed shown next to a ruler for scale, with an inked line indicating its length of around 4mm
The seed and the elaiosome together are about 3-4 mm. 25 May 2023, Floor 3 Garden, The British Library St Pancras, London Photo: Methaporn Singhanan, Andrea Deri
Title page of a book "Monographie der Europaeischen Myrmekochoren
Title page of Rutger Sernander’s (1906) monograph on European myrmecochory. [(P) BX 80 -E(11)]


Both ants and plants benefit from this movement of seeds. Ants profit from the nutritious seasonal food source; the three-cornered garlic is getting its seeds moved to new germinating grounds.

According to a recent study[10] over four percent of known plant species are myrmecochorous, that is, their seed dispersal is facilitated by ants. As an adaptive reproduction strategy myrmecochory appears to have evolved several times in phylogenetically unrelated plants.

Johan Rutger Sernander (1866-1944) [11], a Swedish botanist, published the first monograph on myrmecochory in 1906. The British Library holds a copy of this rare opus. Sernander’s comprehensive work is unique for his field experiments related to several European ant species’ preferences between various plants’ seeds and their elaiosome. The three-cornered garlic was included in the experiments and in the monograph’s splendid illustrations.

An image of a book page showing engravings of various types of flowers, fruit and seeds
Table I Fruits and seeds with elaiosomes of various plant species. 7-8 Three-cornered garlic (Allium triquetrum) in Sernander (1906) [(P) BX 80 -E(11)]
Close-up engraved image of a garlic fruit and seed
Enlarged image: 7-8 Three-cornered garlic in Table I Fruits and seeds with elaiosomes of various plant species. Sernander (1906) [(P) BX 80 -E(11)]


Engraved cross-section of various plant tissues showing individual cells
Table 4 Cross-section of elaiosomes of various plant species under microscope. 135 (bottom-centre) Three-cornered garlic (Allium triquetrum). Note the large oil containing cells. Sernander (1906) [(P) BX 80 -E(11)]

While the three-cornered garlic benefits from myrmecochory it also spreads by bulbs. Furthermore, milder winters due to unfolding climatic changes also facilitate the plant’s expansion. The three-cornered garlic, native to the Mediterranean[12,13] is spreading fast towards the north[14,15]. It is now considered an invasive species in the UK and “it is an offence under Schedule 9 [16] of the Wildlife and Countryside Act in England and Wales to plant or otherwise cause to grow this species in the wild.”

While you can’t grow this species in the wild, you can eat it as much as you like[17]. Unlike ants that eat only the elaiosome, foraging people consume all parts, raw or cooked[18]. 

So, how did the three-cornered garlic find its home on the British Library’s Floor 3 terrace garden? This is an enigma. Certainly not by our gardeners’ intentional planting. Perhaps non-human gardeners, including ants and other animals?

A garlic plant shown growing against a braided wooden fence
Three-cornered garlic in Camley Street Natural Park, London, 11 May 2023 Photo: Andrea Deri


Having checked all other public green spaces around the British Library in St Pancras in May 2023, three-cornered garlic was not found in the neighbourhood. The nearest place where its blossom and whiff of garlic were impossible to miss was Camley Street Natural Park [19]. Perhaps a visit to Camley Street facilitated the seed dispersal to the British Library in a bit of soil stuck to a pair of shoes or claws? Perhaps other unintentional actions? Anyway, the introduction was successful. Compared to last year (2022), significantly more three-cornered garlic flowered in the British Library Floor 3 garden this year (2023).

Woodcut image showing an ant and a grasshopper conversing beneath a tree, in a landscape with towns and hills in the distance
Illustration of the ant and the grasshopper in winter from Aesop. ‘Fab. CXXI. The Ant and the Grashopper’. In The Fables of Aesop and Others Translated into English And a Print before Each Fable by Samuel Croxall, D.D. Late Archdeacon of Hereford, The tenth edition carefully revised, and Improved., London: Printed for W. Strahan, J, [and others], 1775. pages 205–206. [Digital Store 1568/8258.]


Many generations have grown up on Aesop’s (d: 564 BC) [20] tale and morals about the ant and the grasshopper.

Pen and ink cartoon showing three ants dancing in a line on their hindmost legs
Dancing ants inspired by myrmecochory by Matthew Waters, 23 May 2023.


I am curious, what counter-stories myrmecochory could inspire about the “dancing” gourmet ants?

Written by Andrea Deri, Cataloguer, British Library


Special thanks to Matthew Waters, Manuscript Cataloguer, British Library for drawing dancing ants to illustrate this blog post and inspire counter-stories of Aesop’s classic tale, and Methaporn Singhanan, Chevening Fellow at the British Library 2022-23 for engaging in the exploration of wildlife around the British Library and sharing her photographs.

References [BL shelfmark]

All URLs accessed on 5 June 2023.

[1] Rose, Francis. The wild flower key: How to identify wild flowers, trees and shrubs in Britain and Ireland. Revised and Extended edition. London: Frederick Warne, 2006. pages 514-15 [YK.2007.a.20577]

[2] IPNI. ‘Allium Triquetrum in International Plant Name Index’, 2023.

 [3] Jones, Richard. Ants: The Ultimate Social Insects. Vol. 11. British Wildlife Collection. London: Bloomsbury Wildlife, 2022. [ELD.DS.666937]

[4] Morley, Wragge. Ants. Vol. 8. New Naturalist Monograph Series. London: Collins, 1953. [W.P.12018/5., W41/8118, (B) G 65 (F1)]

[5] Brian, M. V. Ants. The New Naturalist. London: Collins, 1977. [(B) G 61,
Document Supply 79/34771]

[6-9] Liddell, Henry George, Robert Scott, and Henry Stuart Jones. A Greek - English Lexicon …  A New Edition Revised and Augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones [and others] Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961. Page 527, 1749, 1154, 1998 [Open Access Humanities 1 Reading Room HLR 483]

[10] Lengyel, Szabolcs, Aaron D. Gove, Andrew M. Latimer, Jonathan D. Majer, and Robert R. Dunn. ‘Convergent Evolution of Seed Dispersal by Ants, and Phylogeny and Biogeography in Flowering Plants: A Global Survey’. Perspectives in Plant Ecology, Evolution and Systematics 12, no. 1 (2010): 43–55. [6428.149200]

[11] Sernander, Rutger. Entwurf einer Monographie der europäischen Myrmekochoren ... Mit 11 Tafeln und 29 Textfiguren, etc. Stockholm, 1906. [(P) BX 80 -E(11)]

[12] Allium triquetrum L. | Plants of the World Online | Kew Science

[13] BSBI. ‘Definitions: Wild, Native or Alien?’, 2023.

[14] Taylor, I., and K.J. Walker. Three-Cornered Garlic Allium Triquetrum L.  in BSBI Online Plant Atlas 2020. Edited by P.A. Stroh, T.A. Humphrey, R.J. Burkmar, O.L. Pescott, D.B. Roy, and K.J. Walker. Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI), UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Biological Records Centre, 2020.

[15] Botany in Scotland. ‘Plant of the Week, 27th March 2023 – Three-Cornered Garlic -Allium Triquetrum’. Botany in Scotland (blog), 27 March 2023.

[16] UK Government. ‘Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 You Are Here: UK Public General Acts1981 c. 69SCHEDULE 9’, 1981.

[17] Wild Food UK. ‘Three-Cornered Leek’, 2023.

[18] Samangooei, Mina. ‘Individuals Cultivating Edible Plants on Buildings in England’. Oxford Brookes University, 2016. [EThOS DRT 800185]

[19] Camley Street Natural Park | London Wildlife Trust (

[20] Aesop. ‘Fab. CXXI. The Ant and the Grashopper’. In The Fables of Aesop and Others Translated into English And a Print before Each Fable by Samuel Croxall, D.D. Late Archdeacon of Hereford, The tenth edition carefully revised, and Improved., London: Printed for W. Strahan, J, [and others], 1775. Pages 205–206. [Digital Store 1568/8258.]

27 April 2023

Wild British Library: A feather

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

A feather was spotted on a sunny crisp lunch break walk on 15 February 2023. [Fig. 1, 2]

(a brown feather with a break near the end of the quill is shown next to a ruler to give scale, showing it to be around 10cm long)
Figure 1 Feather found on 15 February 2023 in the ‘moss-garden”, The British Library St Pancras, London Photo: Andrea Deri


the underside of the same feather, showing lighter brown stripes
Figure 2 Feather (under side) found on 15 February 2023 in the ‘moss-garden”, The British Library St Pancras, London Photo: Andrea Deri

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 feather, marked with a yellow dot, is seen on a garden plot covered with moss and larger plants
Figure 3 Feather in situ, see the yellow dot, found on 15 February 2023 in the ‘moss-garden”, The British Library St Pancras, London. Photo: Andrea Deri


the corner of the British Library terrace, showing a wooden pergola, wooden and metal chairs, and an abstract bronze sculpture
Figure 4 ‘Moss garden’ behind the Barbara Hepworth sculpture and the pergola of the British Library (BL) St. Pancras site under a four-floor high wall, London


the corner of the British Library terrace seen from further away, showing the high windowless brick wall of a taller section of the building at the end of it
Figure 5 High wall above the ‘moss garden’, The British Library St Pancras, London.

The shady moss-garden is one of the least exposed public green areas in the BL [Fig. 6].

a Google-branded satellite view of the British Library from above, showing the terrace at the rear of the building
Figure 6 ‘Moss-garden’, see the yellow dot, Google map (23 March 2023).

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 [1]

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) and experienced London-based naturalists, we got confirmation that the feather indeed belonged to a woodcock (Scolopax rusticola Linnaeus, 1758). [Fig. 7]

a painting of two woodcocks with a chick before a background of rushes
Figure 7 Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola) with chick in J.A. Naumann 1902 Unsere Schnepfen.

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 [2]

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) [3] 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.“ [3]

a brown leather book cover, showing a lighter-coloured abstract pattern on the leather and an engraved royal coat of arms with "G III R" above
Figure 8 Cover of Thomas Pennant 1776 British Zoology


a page of a book, with a faint sepia picture of two woodcocks forming a background to the text
Figure 9 First page of the Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola) chapter in Thomas Pennant 1776 British Zoology page 365.


a black and white engraving of a woodcock on the bank of a pool
Figure 10 Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola) in Thomas Pennant 1776 British Zoology page 364 Plate XV No. 178.

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.” [5]

The 21st century ‘London Bird Atlas’ features high numbers of woodcock observations plotted on a London map [7].

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) [8]. 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].

a black and white engraving of two woodcocks digging in soil with their beaks
Figure 11 Hungry woodcocks (Scolopax rusticola) feeding on earthworms in L. H. De Visme Shaw 1903 Snipe and woodcock. Page 193.

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 [11].


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 [13]

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 [14].

a photograph of a woodcock crouching in short grass
Figure 12 Woodcock in Norfolk at night with flash, January 2023. Photo: Henry Wyn-Jones. Published with permission.

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]

[1] Davis, J., 2023. European woodcocks have the brightest feathers known to exist. Available at: <>.

[2] 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]

[3] Pennant, T., 1776. British Zoology. London: Printed for Benj. White. page 365 [40.d.10-13]

[4] Dixon, C., 1909. The bird-life of London. London: Willam Heinemann. [7285.e.29]

[5] Tristram-Valentine, J.T., 1895. London Birds and Beasts. London. page 252 []

[6] Swann, H.K., 1893. The birds of London. London. page 103-104 [7285.b.5]

[6] 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]

[7] RSPB, 2023. Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola). [online] Available at: <>.

[8] RSPB, 2018. Danger low flying woodcock. Available at: <>.

[9] 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.

[10] Davies, E. and Hendry, L., 2022. Peregrine falcons are the top birds in town. Available at: <>.

[11] 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]

[12] 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.

[13] 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.) []

24 April 2023

Introducing the Wild British Library

The advertising banner for the British Library's Animals exhibition, showing various animals

Our current flagship exhibition on our St Pancras site is “Animals: Art, Science and Sound”, covering how the animals sharing our planet with us have been depicted, recorded and investigated by humans. It runs from 21st April to 28th August 2023.

Wildlife is widely represented in the British Library’s remarkable collections.

Yet, wildlife living around the British Library often goes unnoticed and unappreciated.

Wild BL, a series of blog posts, will highlight a range of life forms that live and occasionally move around the British Library’s sites in St Pancras, London and Boston Spa, Yorkshire.

The aim of the series is to inspire new approaches to the ways wildlife and people can thrive together in both cities and in the countryside.

Wild BL will feature what’s going on around the British Library at night and during the day in various wildlife habitats and highlight some of the resources about these wild activities in various British Library collections.

The blog posts are authored by British Library members of staff.  Each story reveals where wildlife can be encountered in public areas, so more people can notice and enjoy the presence of various fellow creatures living around the British Library.

Blog readers are encouraged to share their observations in iRecord, a peer-reviewed biodiversity monitoring community-science initiative that connects individual sightings with the National Biodiversity Network. The National Biodiversity Network provides planners and policy makers with evidence for taking biodiversity into consideration in decisions.

By linking wildlife, collections and people, the blog contributes to the British Library’s activities in addressing the biodiversity and climate crises.

Written by Andrea Deri

23 November 2021

Climate change resources at the British Library

The British Library main building in St Pancras, seen over a hedge with a small tree to the left
(Photograph by Tony Antoniou)

The COP26 conference in Glasgow has ended, but the real work of reducing carbon emissions must now begin. The science staff and the British Library Green Network have created a collection guide now available on our website, which includes key items to provide information on the problems and potential solutions.

The guide includes books, journals and online databases that you can only access within the British Library if you have a Reader Pass, but there are also many links to trustworthy websites that contain a wealth of information on climate change, the Earth's climate, and the wider issues.

We will be keeping it up to date so that it will continue to be useful into the future.

07 May 2021

Wiley Digital Archive on history of science now available at the British Library

The words Wiley Digital Archive, with a logo of three books standing as if on a shelf
We are happy to announce that this week we have acquired the Wiley Digital Archives of several major learned societies. The collections currently available are those from the New York Academy of Sciences, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Geographical Society, the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, and the Royal College of Physicians. The database also includes scientific material from major British universities, digitised as part of the BAAS project.

Information in the archives includes field notes on Hausa Islamic law, beginners' lessons in the Mole language spoken in parts of Ghana, research for a government investigation into early-Victorian mine ventilation, reports on an earthquake in Erzerum, Turkey in 1859, a recipe for a "very rare and excellent" seventeenth-century "wound drink", and a huge range of maps. The Royal College of Physicians collections include a number of digitised incunabula and medieval printed books. For those items which might be harder to read, automated transcriptions are available.

Unfortunately the database cannot currently be used from outside the Library, but we are open again and any reader with an interest in the history of science is highly recommended to come in and try it out.

17 July 2020

Gilbert White's influence on science

18th July 2020 is the three hundredth anniversary of the birth of Gilbert White, the "parson-naturalist" best known for his pioneering work on the natural history and history of his parish of Sherborne, Hampshire. A number of posts are appearing on different British Library blogs to celebrate, but this post will discuss his influence on science to this day.

A stained glass window showing a man in a brown habit with a halo, in a country landscape surrounded by birds
Stained glass window commemorating White in Selborne church, showing St Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds. All the birds shown in the window are mentioned in White's writings. Photograph by Si Griffiths under a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

Prior to White's work most scientific biology was based around the study of dead or captive animals in scientists' studies. White, who has been described as "the first ecologist" preferred to observe the animals and plants around his home, over long periods of time. These practices inspired Charles Darwin, whose observations of the finches of the Galapagos Islands initially inspired his thoughts about evolution by natural selection. On a more popular scale, White's influence is seen by some as creating birdwatching as a hobby.

Although more laboratory-centric biologists have occassionally dismissed White-style naturalism as dilatanttish or twee, it has become increasingly important since the mid-twentieth-century, especially in the study of environmental conditions, and of animal behaviour - "ethology".

One of the oldest sites of long-term nature-observation studies in Britain has been Wytham Woods in Oxfordshire. Nicknamed the "laboratory with leaves", it was donated to Oxford University in 1942 by Colonel Raymond ffenell, although some observation had been carried out there since the 1920s. Colonel ffennell was a member of the wealthy and socially prominent German Jewish Schumacher family, who had become rich through his involvement in the South African gold-mining industry, and adopted his wife's surname to avoid anti-German prejudice during World War I. Ever since, a host of research projects have been carried out there on all kinds of animals and plants, as well as climate and soil conditions.

One of the most important discoveries to have been made through long-term environmental observation was the discovery of the damage caused to the environment by acid rain in North America, which came from Gene Likens' observational work at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire, beginning in the 1960s. 

A wooden cabinet containing scientific equipment, on a wooden stand, stands in a sun-dappled forest
Equipment cabinet at Hubbard Brook containing apparatus used for continuous monitoring of a stream's pH. Used non-commercially with permission of USDA Forest Service.

A listing of current long-term environmental observation sites is maintained by the International Long Term Ecological Research Network (ILTER) on their database DEIMS-SDR (Dynamic Ecological Information Management System - Site and Dataset Registry). See also the review article by Hughes and others with links to many examples.

The modern science of animal behaviour, or ethology, was developed in the 1930s by Nikolaas Timbergen, Konrad Lorenz, and Karl von Frisch. All three did most of their research on domestic or captive animals, but the discipline would later see the importance of long-term observation of the behaviour of wild animals in their natural habitats. Three of the most famous practitioners of this were the so-called "Trimates", known for their observations of wild apes - Jane Goodall with chimpanzees in Tanzania, Dian Fossey with gorillas in Zaire and Rwanda, and Birute Galdikas with orang-utans in Indonesia. Another example which has achieved fame outside science, although not yet enough, is Dave Mech's disproof, from observations of wild wolves in Minnesota, of the outdated "alpha wolf" model of social dynamics in wolf packs, which has influenced a great deal of beliefs about dog-training and even human interactions, but was derived from observations of what turned out to be disfunctional behaviour in captive animals.

It is also possible to follow in White's footsteps yourself, by taking part in a citizen science project based on observing nature in your garden or in your wider local area. The Countryside Jobs Network maintains a list of opportunities, which aren't just in rural areas.

We hope that you look a bit more closely at the nature around you this weekend!

13 May 2020

Diarists and diaries

Three manuscript volumes, two open, one closed with a logo showing a dragon on the front.
Diary in the 17th century: The autograph manuscripts of John Evelyn's Diary  Copyright © The British Library Board

‘But one shower of rain all this month.’ - entered John Evelyn in his diary on 29th April 1681. What would you write about April 2020 in your diary?
John Evelyn (1620–1706) is one of the best-known English diarists. He is known as a diarist but he was also a scholar, a botanist, a landscape gardener, author and one of the founding members of ‘The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge' (est. 1660).
An engraving of a white-haired man in academic dress, holding a large leather-bound book
Diarist: John Evelyn (31 October 1620 – 27 February 1706) Copyright © The British Library Board

Unbeknown to him, Evelyn was also a chronicler of climatic change. His weather notes provide us with data on the period dubbed as the Little Ice Age in Europe.
In his diary he noted numerous extreme weather events. The first reference in 1636: ‘This year being extremely dry’, continued later with extreme cold winters when the Thames froze over for weeks, extreme heat, and extreme wind including hurricanes, and unseasonal weather at various times of the year. 
1st January 1684
The weather continuing intolerably severe, streets of booths were set upon the Thames ; the air was so very cold and thick, as for many years there had not been the like. The small-pox was very mortal.
9th January 1684
I went cross the Thames on the ice, now become so thick as to bear not only streets of booths, in which they roasted meat, and had divers shops of wares, quite across as in a town, but coaches, carts and horses passed over.
11th August 1695
The weather now so cold, that greater frosts were not always seen in the midst of winter ; this succeeded much wet and set harvest extremely back.
Unlike most weather diarists, Evelyn did not take daily notes but focused on the unexpected. There are three years of exceptionally high number of weather notes in Evelyn’s diary: 1684, 1695 and 1696.  His comparative notes on the weather makes him stand out of weather diarists. 
25th June 1652
After a drought of near four months, there fell so violent a tempest of hail, rain, wind, thunder and lightning, as no man had seen the like in this age ; the hail being in some places four or five inches about, brake all the glass about London especially at Deptford, and more at Greenwich.
21st January 1671
This year the weather was so wet, stormy, and unseasonable, as had not been known for many years.
21st April 1689
This was one of the most seasonable springs, free form the usual sharp east winds that I have observed since the year 1660 (the year of the Restoration), which was much such as one.
Despite his longitudinal view of how the actual weather compared with previous years of his lifetime, he did not engage with weather forecasting. He took notice, however, of the relationship between weather conditions and health (epidemiology) issues, in line with The Royal Society’s priorities.
Keeping a weather diary in the second part of the 17th century was not unusual. In fact, The Royal Society encouraged it. One of the earliest histories of The Royal Society (1667) gives an account of how Christopher Wren’s (architect, another founding member of The Royal Society) initiated the study of the ‘history of seasons’ as the priority of the Royal Society.
The Second Work which he [Wren] has advanced, is the History of Seasons: which will be of admirable benefit to Mankind, if it shall be constantly pursued, and deriv'd down to Posterity. His proposal therefore was, to comprehend a Diary of Wind, Weather, and other conditions of the Air, as to Heat, Cold, and Weight; and also a General Description of the Year, whether contagious or healthful to Men or Beasts; with an Account of Epidemical Diseases, of Blasts, Mill-dews, and other accidents, belonging to Grain, Cattle, Fish, Fowl, and Insects.
Thomas Sprat (1667:315-6)
The Royal Society published a detailed description to support weather monitoring: 'A METHOD For making a History of the Weather by Mr. Hook’ (Sprat 1667:175-182)
The Royal Academy's stamped bookplate, showing their coat of arms in black and white
The bookplate of The Royal Society Note the Latin motto: Nullius in verba (Take nobody’s words for it)
Wren’s initiative is better understood in the context of extreme weather events and unusual seasons. Weather lore was not fully reliable for farmers and seamen any more. April showers did not necessarily happen – as Evelyn recorded in 1681. Finding out the laws and the cause of weather became a priority for a growing naval power. Evelyn, as an active member of the Royal Society, must have been aware of Wren’s initiative but did not follow any rigorous rules in his diary.  
Evelyn’s diary inspired scholars across disciplines over the last 400 years. One of them, J.M. Winn, M.D. (1848) - motivated by a severe winter in England in 1846 - extracted weather (and epidemiology) related entries from John Evelyn’s diary and concluded that Evelyn’s observations corroborated Howard Luke’s theory of a ‘cycle of seven years in the seasons of Britain’. Howard (see his work on clouds) made his theoretical proposition based on his own daily weather diary. Regardless of the accuracy of his conclusion, Winn recognized the value of Evelyn’s longitudinal dataset over a period of extraordinary climatic and social changes. Winn, similar to Wren and Evelyn himself, was keen to account for the link between extreme climatic and social events; a topic that has become part of our daily conversation as well this spring.
The British Library holds The John Evelyn Archive, a collection of his autograph diary, correspondence and related documents. This year marks John Evelyn’s 400th anniversary of birth (31 October 1620).
Celebrating Evelyn comes in style for many people who started keeping a diary this spring, written, audio, photo, or video diary, for recording their story of the Covid-19 epidemic, the impacts and the questions raised by this epidemic and the unfolding climatic changes. Evelyn, Wren, Howard were not professional meteorologists. But their observations, insights, and understanding of the importance of weather contributed to the history of meteorology, history of science and the history of civilisations.
Your Covid-19 Chronicles can also be part of The British Library's latest born-digital archives initiated by BBC Radio 4’s. Read here how your Covid-19 stories can make history.
An image shows a teacup, a closed laptop computer with monitor, a pen, a cloth-bound book and a pair of earbud headphones
Diary in 2020 [Photo: A. Deri, 6 May 2020]

Further reading
British Library to find home for Covid Chronicles (3 minutes)
Hear Polly Russell lead curator at the British Library tell Evan Davis how the Covid Chronicles might be used by future researchers.
30th April 2020
Evelyn, J., W. Bray (ed.) 1952. The diary of John Evelyn.   Vols. I-II. Dent.
BL Shelfmark W11/6235 Vol I; W11/6236 Vol II
Digitized editions of Evelyn’s diaries on & 
Sprat, Th. (ed.) 1667. The History of the Royal Society of London, for the Improving of Natural Knowledge. London.
Winn, J.M. 1848. Notes on Meterology. Annual Report of the Royal Institution of Cornwall. Appendix II. Vol. 29. pp. 38-45.
BL Shelfmark Ac.1225
Many thanks to Phil Hatfield for his helpful suggestions.
Written by Andrea Deri, Science Reference Team

01 April 2020

Clouds: How Luke Howard linked Weather Lore and Natural Philosophy

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
   William Wordsworth

A greyscale image of a painting of a large fluffy cloud
Figure 1 Cumulus is one of the three main genera of cloud formations proposed by Luke Howard in 1802 and still used today. Image from Howard, L. 1832 (second edition). On the modification of clouds, etc. page 33. Philo. Mag. Pl. VI. Vol. XVII. DRT Digital Store 1393.k.16.(1.)

 William Wordsworth’s (1770-1850) ‘lonely as a cloud’ poem was conceived in April 1802 on a spring day walk in the Lake District. A few months later, in December 1802, a pharmacist and amateur meteorologist, Luke Howard (1772-1864) delivered a paper in London, on the dynamics of cloud formations. The two events were unrelated but their futures became intertwined. Howard’s essay ‘On the modifications of Clouds’ (1803) resonated deeply within learned circles, including arts and sciences. Clouds soon became the objects of fascination and scrutinizing attention. Articulating the order of the enigmatic sky-scape inspired poets, painters and scientists. The "lonely as a cloud" simile in Wordsworth’s poem, which he composed and published (1807) years after his Lake District walk, is also a nod to Howard’s ideas.  Within sciences a century later, the International Cloud Atlas (2017) of the World Meteorological Organization still draws on Howard’s taxonomy. 

What is it about Howard’s approach to clouds that made his essay so influential? Various characteristics have been identified so far; a few are highlighted here.
Howard likened cloud formations to the eloquence of human facial expression:
Clouds 'are subject to certain distinct modifications, produced by the general causes which effect all the variations of the atmosphere: they are commonly as good visible indications of the operation of these causes, as is the countenance of the state of a person's mind or body.' (Howard 1830:3)
By relating clouds to people, especially the face, the most personal feature of an individual, Howard captured the imagination of his readers: a truly powerful captatio benevolentiae at the time of growing interest in the self and its romantic reflections in the world.
In addition to making clouds personal, Howard drew on sources of knowledge that had authority on the weather in different parts of the society in the early 19th century England. One was popular knowledge or weather lore based on the practical knowledge of weather-wise farmers and mariners whose life depended on their ability of reading the clouds and other weather signs. The other was the theoretical knowledge of natural philosophers whose ambitions to account for weather changes employed experimental methods of the fledgling sciences.
'It is the frequent observation of the countenance of the sky, and of its connection with the present and ensuing phaenomena, that constitutes the antient [sic] and popular meteorology. The want of this branch of knowledge renders the prediction of the philosopher (who is attending only to his instruments may be said only to examine the pulse of the atmosphere) less generally successful than those of the weather-wise mariner or husbandman.' (Howard 1830:3)
Howard recognized the challenges of linking the two, translating between different ways of knowing, especially when mariners’ and farmers’ tacit knowledge was considered as  ‘incommunicable’:
'But as this experience is usually consigned only to the memory of the possessor [Howard refers here to mariners, farmers], in a confused mass of simple aphorisms, the skill resulting from it is in a manner of incommunicable; for, however valuable these links when in connexion with the rest of the chain, they often serve, when taken singly, only to mislead; and the power of connecting them, in order to form a judgement upon occasion, resides only in the mind before which their relations have passed, through perhaps imperceptibly, in review.' (Howard 1830:4)
The above description makes Howard a forerunner of the still on-going debate on the commensurability of practice-based and scientific knowledge.

Howard was fully aware of the obstacles presented by the isolation of different knowledge traditions and of the necessity of communication. This is why he proposed a common vocabulary:
'In order to enable the meteorologist to apply the key of analysis to the experience of others, as well as to record his own with brevity and precision, it may perhaps be allowable to introduce a methodical nomenclature, applicable to the various forms of suspended water, or, in other words, to the modification of cloud.'  (Howard 1830:4)
An image of three clouds of different types, described in the caption
Figure 2 Cirro-cumulus, cirro-stratus, cumulo-stratus, from top to down. Cirrus, stratus and cumulus, represent Howard’s three main genera of cloud formations. They can transform into each other and form composites. Image from Howards, L. 1832 (second edition). On the modification of clouds, etc. page 33. Philo. Mag. Pl. VII. Vol. XVII. DRT Digital Store 1393.k.16.(1.)

By linking practical knowledge and experimental scientific approaches, Howard highlighted an important similarity: both assumed order and predictability in the formation of clouds, or ‘nubification’, as Howard referred to the process. Both assumed that cloud formation was driven by many more factors than the ‘sport of winds’. Landscape features in the following example: when the morning sun warms up the mist, which sits in the valley as a stratus, formed during the night, a cloud can form as a nascent cumulus over the meadow, an indicator of fair weather:
‘At nebulae magis ima petunt, campoque recumbent.’ (But the clouds seek more the vales, and rest upon the plain)
Virgil Georgicon. Liber I. line 401 quoted in Howard on page 8 in the section of describing cirro-cumulus. (Translated by J.B. Greenough, 190)
Howard’s invocation of Virgil further strengthened his argument for connecting popular and scientific knowledge. Quotations from Virgil’s Georgics Book 1, that covers knowledge of farming and weather recognized in 1st century BC in ancient Rome, gave further credibility to practice-based knowledge. Howard’s readers who grew up on Latin antiquities recognized the Georgics as classic text and this familiarity may have given greater appeal to Howard’s ideas.
Howard’s cloud book is very short, only 32 pages, and illustrated with the author’s watercolours. The British Library holds three editions (1803, 1830, 1894), of which the second is digitized, and freely accessible remotely through Explore (Digital Store 1393.k.16.(1.))
Cloud spotting remains a passion, and Howard’s taxonomy of cirrus, stratus and cumulus still guides cloud observation in the 21st century.
This spring, in our isolation, looking up at the sky from our window, clouds may present the only contact we have with the natural world. The ever-changing cloud formations may give us both a sense of space and a sense of belongingness; even more so if we share our observations on citizen science initiatives, such as BBC Weather Watchers.
A photograph of a sky filled with fluffy cumulus clouds over the roofs of suburban houses
Figure 3 Sky-scape with cumulus over London (Photo: Andrea Deri, 31st March 2020)

In our bliss of solitude, dreaming on our couch with Wordsworth, may our wondering about clouds also extend to Luke Howard.
‘For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.’
A handwritten poem on a piece of paper
Figure 4 A section of a hand-written manuscript of William Wordsworth's poem 'I wandered lonely as a cloud'. © The British Library Board 065858. BL Add. MS 47864

Boon, R., 2014. The man who named the clouds. Science Museum Blog. [Accessed 27 March 2020]
Brant, C., 2019. A cloud. European Romanticism in Association?: A pan-European organization bringing together individual researchers, scholarly associations and heritage institutions studying Romantic literature and culture. [Accessed 27 March 2020]
Hamblyn, R. 2001. The invention of clouds: how an amateur meteorologist forged the language of the skies. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. British Library shelfmarks m02/13387, YK.2001.a.15194
Howard, L., [1830]. On the modification of clouds and on the Principles of their Production, Suspension, and Destruction: Being the Substance of an Essay read before the Askensian Society in the Session 1802-3, Second ed. Printed by Talor, Black-Horse-Road, Fleet Street, London. British Library shelfmark 1393.k.16.(1.) 
Pedgley, D.E., 2003. Luke Howard and his clouds. Weather 58, pp. 51–55. [Accessed 27 March 2020]
Reno, S.T., 2017. Romantic Clouds: Climate, Affect, Hyperobjects Seth T. Reno, in: Robertson, B.P. (Ed.), Romantic Sustainability: Endurance and the Natural World, 1780-1830. Lexington Books, Chapter 3. British Library shelfmark YC.2016.a.11155 
P. Vergilius Maro, Georgics. Books One. J. B. Greenough, (ed.) Translated by J.B. Greenough into English, 1900 Text [Accessed 27 March 2020]
Wordsworth, W., Kelliher, W.H., 1984. The manuscript of William Wordsworth’s poems, in two volumes (1807): a facsimile. British Library, London. British Library shelfmark Document Supply fGPB-46
Contributed by Andrea Deri, Science Reference Team

07 February 2020


Wise Festival - Celebrating the International Day of Women and Girls in Science
Newcastle University’s Street Science Team bring science, engineering, technology and maths to life through the medium of street performance. We take everyday household objects and use them to demonstrate the scientific phenomena we encounter every single day. It’s science, but not as we know it!
Images of scientists demonstrating experiments to members of the public
WISE (WOMEN IN SCIENCE EVENTS) Festival, British Library 11 February 2020
The British Library is joining in the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, celebrating and raising the voices of women in science with a one day mini festival.  Our events and talks will encourage you to laugh, sing and think.  Every few days this blog will look in more detail at the participants and their involvement with the event.

Science blog recent posts



Other British Library blogs