Written by Jeannie Swales
While taxidermy has its place in the serious sciences – how else could you study the anatomy of a bird such as the peregrine so close up? – it always seems sad to see such a magnificent creature reduced to a museum exhibit.
The Scarborough Collections has many specimens of fine taxidermy, the vast majority of them from the 19th century, which was probably the golden period of the art. Older Scarborians will remember many of them from their days in the natural history museum at Woodend, now a creative industries space, and home to Scarborough Museums Trust’s head offices.
This is a peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), a bird which, remarkably, has become a fairly common sight in Scarborough in recent years, with a pair nesting regularly on the Castle cliffs and even, I’m told, a second pair on one of the turrets of the Grand Hotel earlier this year – along with other peregrine nest sites such as the Houses of Parliament, Tate Modern and Norwich and Chichester Cathedrals, surely one of the most spectacular locations possible.
It’s a rare privilege for the town – the RSPB estimates that there are only around 1,500 breeding pairs in the whole of the UK.
The peregrine is believed to be one of, if not the, fastest animal in the entire world – when it goes into a ‘stoop’, or dive, after its prey, it can reach speeds of over 200mph. With astonishing accuracy, the predator hits just the wing of its prey, thus protecting itself from the impact and knocking its victim cold. The falcon then follows the unconscious bird to the ground and dispatches it by severing its vertebrae with its beak, which has a special adaptation for the purpose – a small notch called the ‘tomial tooth’.
Another remarkable adaptation on the peregrine’s beak protects it against the potentially damaging high pressure airflow that results from a stoop – small bony, conical valves inside its nostrils, known as ‘tubercles’, which break up and slow the air intake. As is so often the case, man has adopted nature’s genius and uses a similar system on aeroplanes designed to reach supersonic speeds.
Next time you walk or drive round the castle headland, take a minute to see if you can spot one of nature’s rarer miracles living happily among us.
The peregrine is part of the Scarborough Collections, name given to all the museum objects that have been acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. They are used by researchers ranging from professional to amateur academics, freelance writers producing articles for magazines to television production companies, students studying art, costume design, geology, history, and tourism. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.firstname.lastname@example.org or (01723) 384510.