Birds of Berkshire

The Natural History Museum in South Meadow Lane was built to hold the largest collection of stuffed birds in Victorian Britain. Much of that collection is still in the Museum, over 160 years later!  It also explains why, if you look on the outside of the building, you will see that there are carvings of hawks, peacocks, owls and doves all over it.

The Birds of Berkshire

 Curiously, the first book on birds ever to include photos was written by a 16-year-old Eton boy in 1868 called Alexander W. M. Clark Kennedy. It was entitled the Birds of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire and also happened to be the first book specifically on the birds of Berkshire.

Just before Christmas, I was lucky enough to go to Reading Museum for the launch of the most recent book on local birds, The Berkshire Bird Atlas. Eton College kindly sponsored the publication so that a copy of the book could be delivered to each and every school in Berkshire, a great way of encouraging the next generation of bird watchers.

  It is a superb book, full colour throughout its five hundred or so pages, with superb photography and original line drawings of each species and highly recommended.  There is a wonderful chapter on where to watch birds in Berkshire and it has given me my New Year’s resolution, namely to get out more and appreciate the biodiversity which is all around us, despite the flight path of Heathrow and the never ending M4 traffic.  The great thing is that so many of these sites are local to us in East Berkshire, with Bray Gravel Pits and the Jubilee River and the reservoirs around Heathrow being the most immediate.

 In a little over a decade, the slow-flowing Jubilee River has become popular with waterfowl and this is especially so when nearby lakes freeze over this time of year. Species such as Goldeneye, Smew and Goosander and even rarer species like Ruddy Ducks and Red-crested Pochards can be seen.  The Dorney Wetlands were designed as a wildlife refuge and are easily reached from the car park in Lake End Road, Dorney, not far from the Pineapple Pub.    


Bitterns, Bearded Tits and Water Rails have overwintered there since the site was established and in the summer there are numerous Reed and Sedge Warblers and Reed Buntings.

A map and brief details of Dorney Wetlands appears on the website www.birds  where you can also find details of the excellent Atlas!

George Fussey, Curator


Nature Notes

Residents may have noticed the distinctive silhouettes of large birds of prey gliding slowly overhead in recent months.  Supremely graceful, these fork-tailed raptors are Red Kites, and they are part of our heritage in the UK and a real success story in conservation work.

In the Natural History Museum in South Meadow Lane we have a very fine specimen of a green parrot from New Zealand, called a Kakapo.  Once, Kakapos were widespread in New Zealand.   For years they had no predators, but that all changed when European settlers arrived in the eighteenth century.  With the introduction of species from the UK, such as cats, rats, ferrets and stoats, this flightless parrot was soon under threat.  Now, critically endangered, there are only 126 left in the wild.

Similarly, Red Kites used to be super-abundant in medieval towns and played a vital role living on human waste and keeping the streets clear of carrion and rotting food. They even featured in Shakespeare: he mentions their annoying habit of stealing linen from the washing line for nesting material! Persecuted over the centuries, Red Kite numbers went into a terminal decline and they were extinct in England and Scotland by the 1880s.  By the late twentieth century, only a few breeding pairs remained in Wales and all seemed lost.

However, successful reintroductions of birds, mostly from Sweden and Spain, have led to a rapid rise in numbers, so much so that they were named as ‘Bird of the Century’ by the British Trust for Ornithology.  For example, some birds were released in the Chilterns in 1989, and these, and numerous other introductions, have formed breeding populations and spread steadily over the last 15 years.  They still feed off carrion and frequently, these days, road-kill.  They are a lasting reminder that we can, through conservation, reverse the trends of centuries if we really try!

George Fussey


Object of the Week – 01/08/13

Did you know what last week’s object of the week was?

Acorn Barnacle

Well done if you recognised last week’s object was our Acorn Barnacle (Semibalanus balanoides).

Barnacles are Crustaceans that have adapted to a sessile life; once the young barnacle larva has found a place to live, it attaches to a surface and will stay there for the rest of its life. They feed by filtering food particles out of the water with their feathery arms. Unlike most other Crustaceans they do not shed their external shell.

When Darwin undertook his study of Barnacles this was only some years after they had been reclassified from Molluscs (their hard external shell had led anatomists to believe they should be classed with limpets). Darwin had only intended to study one species of barnacle, but after spending over a year studying them he realised the extent of the work there was to be done on the taxonomy of the group.

Object of the Week – 25/07/13

Darwin spent eight years studying this group of animals. Do you know what this is?


Did you know what last week’s object of the week was?

Manuscript page on loan from College Library

Well done if you recognised the object last week was our original manuscript sheet from Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. It is one of 42 surviving sheets that make up the only handwritten original copy of the manuscript that was Darwin’s most influential work.

Our sheet was given by Darwin to Ann Thankeray Ritchie, the daughter of the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. We know she visited Darwin in 1882 just seven days before he died.

Don’t worry if you can’t read Darwin’s handwriting because we have a translation next to it. But you’ll have to visit the museum to see it!

Object of the Week – 18/07/13

It may not look like much, but this piece of paper is one of our most treasured objects. Do you know what it is?


Did you know what last week’s object of the week was?

Song Thrush striking a snail against their anvil

Well done if you identified the Song Thrush from the photo last week, caught mid snack with its favourite food the brown-lipped snail (Cepaea nemoralis). There is a great variety in the colour and banding pattern on the snail’s shell, (it is highly polymorphic) and this is partly due to the feeding habits of the Thrush. 

Song Thrushes break open the shell of a snail by hitting it against a hard stone called an anvil. Thrushes are territorial and return to the same anvil, leaving the broken shells of their prey scattered nearby. This allows us to build up an accurate picture of their diet.  

Thrushes hunt by sight and select whichever snails have the least effective camouflage. This is dependent on their habitat and also the time of year. For example;,snail populations that live in woodlands with lots of dark leaves on the ground would favour snails with shells that are darkly coloured shells with lots of banding. In this way different populations of polymorphs continue to exist in their respective habitats.

Object of the Week – 11/07/13

Bonus points this week if you can name the bird shown and the species of snail!


Did you know what last week’s object of the week was?

Ichang Deer

Well done if you identified the skull last week as that of our Ichang Tufted Deer (Elaphodus cephalophus ichangensis). 

This deer was shot in 1904 by A. E. Leatham on the mountains near Ichang, Hupei province, China. He believed it to be a new species and so brought the animal to the Natural History Museum in London. It was determined to be a new species and named Elaphodus ichangensis.

It was later found that an identical skull had been left in the museum two years previously by a Mr F. W. Styan. Now that the scientists had the skin of the mystery animal they were able to publish a description; unfortunately for Leatham his specimen could not be used as the type specimen

Leatham chose not to leave his specimen to the Natural History Museum in London, so we are fortunate enough to be able to display it in our museum. Now it can be seen by all our visitors shortly after they arrive.

Object of the Week – 04/07/13

Alas, poor object of the week. We know you well because you’re one of the first objects encountered upon entering the Museum. What are you again?


Did you know what last week’s object of the week was?

Sea Turtle

Well done if you knew that last week’s object was a Sea Turtle! Did you connected the four renaissance painters with the districts in Germany that have turtles on their coat of arms? Or did you just know it was a sea turtle?

Like our snake skin shoes, this object was given to the museum by the UK Border Agency. They had confiscated it from someone entering the country that did not have the proper import license.

There are seven living species of sea turtle; we think this is a green Sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) which is classed as Endangered by the IUCN. Turtle soup made from the fat of the green turtle was once a popular dish and something of a status symbol, as it was very expensive and difficult to prepare.

Object of the Week – 27/06/13

What connects four renaissance painters with Hoppegarten and Grünheide in Germany?


Did you know what last week’s object of the week was?

Ammonite - Dactylioceras commune

Well done if you recognised the model shown in last week’s photo was an Ammonite. These extinct molluscs are a sister group to the living Nautilus, and range in size from a few centimetres across to ones as tall as a human! Ammonites are named after the ram-headed Egyptian god Amun, as the ribbed coils of an Ammonite shell look like the horns of a Ram.

The Museum has many examples of Ammonites on display; the specimen shown here is a Dactylioceras, which was a very widespread genus in the time of the dinosaurs. Examples of it have been found in all parts of the world.

The names of this genus comes from the Greek word dactyl which means “finger”, and refers to the branching ribs; If you look closely on the outsde of the shell you can see where the ribs split into two.