The Museum hosts an annual Secret Life of Birds Family Learning Event for Windsor schools. Always a sell-out, it’s one of my favourite events mostly because, to round off the day, we hire a local falconer to come and fly hawks and falcons around the splendid new McCrum Yard. The children love the spectacle, the chance to get up close to these superbly adapted animals. By the end of the event the children are all able to tell the difference between a hawk and a falcon. Hawks have broad wings without sharp tips, designed for manoeuvrability and kill prey with their talons. Falcons, on the other hand, have narrow wing-tips designed for extreme speed and they generally catch prey with their talons whilst in flight and then kill the prey with their beaks.
The Peregrine Falcon has the distinction of being the fastest recorded animal on the planet, reaching speeds of over 200 mph in the vertical dive (or ‘stoop’). It usually tries to hit one wing of its prey so as not to harm itself on impact. In recent months we have enjoyed sightings of a Peregrine on the south-side of College Chapel. Boys and Masters have also recovered the scant remains of Ring-Necked Parakeets which it has caught. Given that the Parakeets can displace native species from nesting sites and compete with them for food, some local ornithologists are not unhappy to see the Parakeet population under threat!
However, for much of the twentieth century, the Peregrine population has itself been taking a tumble. After the onset of the Second World War, large numbers of Peregrines were killed because they were thought to pose a threat to the military use of homing pigeons with the result that their population was reduced by nearly 50% by 1944. Peregrine populations next suffered in the 50s and 60s from the widespread use of organochlorine pesticides such as DDT. So, all in all, we should take the College Chapel falcon as a welcome sign of recovery.
Photo credit: Mark Fielker
Nearly a quarter of the 17,000 specimens in the Eton Natural History Museum collections are dried and pressed flowers. Our herbarium dates back mostly to the 1830s and it represents an amazing record of plants, many of which used to be common but have since become rarities, or even extinct. Some plants, however, have increased their numbers over the years and have even become troublesome. One such plant is the group of daisies known as Ragworts.
At the end of August this year, the College made hay on its local meadows. One of the prettiest flowers in the fields is Ragwort, with its bright yellow flowers. Before the hay can be cut, the Eton groundsmen make sure that they pull out all the Ragwort, a really laborious process. The reason is that it is highly toxic to livestock. Fortunately, horses and most other grazers will not eat the living plant but they will after it has been cut and dried out. The plant is said to be responsible for half the stock poisoning incidents in Britain and in sufficient quantities it can and does cause fatal liver damage. However, there is one moth, the Cinnabar Moth, whose black and yellow caterpillars eat Ragwort with relish and use the poisons it contains to protect themselves from bird attack by making themselves particularly distasteful.
One species of Ragwort is known as Oxford Ragwort. Old Etonian Sir Joseph Banks, the founder of Kew Gardens and botanist on Captain Cook’s first circumnavigation, first noticed it growing in the Oxford University Botanic Garden in the 1770s. Its natural habitat is the volcanic rock around Mount Etna, but somehow it found its way to Oxford. Its downy seeds soon escaped the gardens and eventually made its way to Oxford railway station by the1830s. From there it grew easily on the clinker of railway tracks and has spread, carried along by the slipstream of trains and courtesy of the Great Western Railway, to every part of urban Britain where it likes to grow on any waste ground.
Photos courtesy of Karen Phillips at Taste’s Deli, Eton High Street.