The Secret Life of Birds

Katie the Museum Intern tells us about the Family Learning Event on the 28th October …


Do you know how to distinguish between a falcon and a hawk?  Or what an owl pellet is? Families were let in on these secrets and much more as we introduced them to the Secret Life of Birds at our October Family Learning Event. 

An array of falcons, hawks and owls awaited the visitors in the talks given by Alan Greenhalgh and his team from First Class Falconry. Children and adults took turns holding and flying the hawks and smaller owls. Harrier Hawks were allowed to fly free in the courtyard; they perched on the surrounding buildings, looking like some of the stone carvings that had come to life!  

"Never work with animals or children.."


So how do you tell a hawk from a falcon? Falcon wings come to sharp points that form a diamond shape, whereas hawks have a more rounded wing. Most falcons also have a small notch or tooth on the upper part of their beak, which they use to kill their prey in flight.

Visitors explored the museum seeking out clues to a bird trail hidden throughout the display cases. Children painted and camouflaged their own bird eggs and got stuck into dissecting Owl pellets (not real ones).


Bird eggs come in a variety of shapes and sizes. You can learn more about them from Newall egg collection on display in the Museum.


If you don’t know what an owl pellet is: they are masses of undigested food that owls regurgitate from their stomach. Because owls swallow their prey whole and cannot digest bones, each pellet contains almost the entire skeleton of whatever the owl has eaten. Children were able to learn about the bones of the animals that make up an owl’s diet as they rebuilt the skeletons. 

Owl pellet dissection taking place. Here's one I made earlier...

I can’t tell you how excited I was in the run up to this event and the day certainly didn’t disappoint! I think the way that children and adults are looked after at every stage of the day really makes these Family Learning Events special. Once again, this event was made possible by the fantastic team of the Clewer Cluster Extended Schools Programme. Our thanks also to the volunteers from Royal Holloway University and their invaluable assistance!

You can have a go at the bird trail on any Sunday that the Museum is open by downloading the worksheet from the learning section of the website.

Voyages through Space and Time

Katie the Museum Intern tells us about the Family Learning Event on the 29th September …


Have you ever heard of a squirting cucumber? Or seen a Florilegium? Families from the local community got up close to both of these as we took them to Australia and back in our September Family Learning Event.

These workshops were inspired by the great voyages of discovery made by Sir Joseph Banks, a former school boy at Eton. He displayed a great love of botany, preferring to roam the countryside rather than do his schoolwork. Throughout the day, we were following in the footsteps of Banks on his voyage aboard the Endeavour. Banks journeyed to new unexplored lands, encountering kangaroos and plant species that were completely new to science.

Activity trails in the museum involved drawing a kangaroo from just the skeleton and choosing things to take with you on your own voyage (hard to do if you can only take five things). We also learnt how Banks’ discoveries made him so famous that he was featured on the Australian $5 banknote!  Everyone had a go at drawing their own banknote with their picture and what they would like to be famous for; mine had a picture of the Eton NHM on it with the butterfly specimens I am going to try and repair.  

A volume of Banks’ Florilegium was displayed, which features prints of the beautiful artwork that Sydney Parkinson produced to illustrate the plants collected by Banks and the Swedish scientist Daniel Solander. There was a great atmosphere in the room when everyone was crowding round the huge book and marvelling at the wonderful pictures of exotic trees and flowers.

George the Curator holding up a print from the Florilegium. More of these prints can be seen hanging on the walls of the NHM and are the work of the artist Sydney Parkinson, who died during the voyage.

Michael Holland joined us from the Chelsea Physic Garden to introduce us to the incredible diversity of seeds. From the tiny Poppy seed to the giant Coco de Mer, seeds come in all shapes and sizes.  Everyone took turns looking at the tiny seeds under a microscope and seeing how they are adapted for dispersal. The climax of the session was Michael demonstrating how a squirting cucumber (Ecballium elaterium) fires its seeds explosively over a long distance. The children planted their choice of seeds to take home (much to the delight of the parents I’m sure!) 

Michael Holland holding a seed of the Coco de Mer (Lodoicea maldivica, a palm endemic to the Seychelles)

This workshop was made possible thanks to the Clewer Cluster Extended Schools Programme. It was a fascinating day and great fun for everyone involved; although I had never heard of a squirting cucumber before, I had seen a picture of a Coco de Mer seed – but nothing can really compare to being able to examine it up close. I also had no idea that so many of the plants that you find in the average garden were discovered and brought to this country by Sir Joseph Banks.