The Museum of London has a fabulous Peregrine Falcon.
It is however, dead.
I saw this bird of prey when I visited the Beasts of London exhibition in 2019 and there was something terribly sad about seeing a creature, although long deceased, stuffed, mounted and displayed in a way that does not reflect the nature of its species (excluding standing over a dead pigeon).
This bird once swopped over the skies of London and in the same way that I’m fascinated in following the footsteps of those who are now dead, I wondered about what it may have seen on the wing: events such as the opening of the Thames Tunnel, spying Dicken’s on a night-time walkabout or maybe even the assassination of Edward Drummond, private secretary to several Prime Ministers on Whitehall in 1843, when it was still alive.
From what we know, it nested at St. Pauls Cathedral. Wren’s masterpiece was an excellent substitute for the sea cliffs its ancestors originally called home.
Despite its prominent home, the bird had an unfortunate end. It was shot in the leg and then kept by Samuel Pope of the Crown Inn, St. Paul’s Churchyard in a cage for a year, before it broke free and tried to regain its liberty. The text behind the bird in its display case doesn’t elaborate on how it died, but I can guess that having a terrified peregrine falcon frantically flapping around a 19th century pub would not deign the landlord to be especially delicate when trying to bring it back under control. So its body was taxidermied and kept behind Pope’s bar as a memento from 1844 onwards.
From what the Museum of London has to say, it probably wasn’t in the best of conditions when it died. A lot of its plumage has been substituted with the feathers of a large pigeon.
The peregrine then somehow fell into the possession of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who donated it to the Natural History Museum at the beginning of the Second World War. How he got a hold of it, the archives remain silent about, but it then found its way into the collections of the Museum of London in the 1960s.
Keeping such a magnificent animal in a busy pub is a world away from how we treat peregrines today, where entire building projects are put on hold so as not to disturb them as they rear their young. That’s not to say they are no longer threatened, as people still shoot and poison them and many nest sites have to be kept secret as they lack the security to keep hunters at bay.
And this poor animal was not the first Peregrine to call St. Pauls its home: Victorian newspaper reports occasional mention successor birds to the one on display at the Museum of London and its use by the species from the buildings completion since 1697.
Peregrines in the 20th century underwent severe persecution. From being seen as a threat to game birds in the latter part of the 19th century to being shot in the First World War (their taste for carrier pigeons interrupted the spread and flow of vital information) on top of poisoning which, in the 1950s drove them to near-extinction.
They began moving into urban centres from the mid-1990s (our fondness for tall buildings married nicely with their love of living on them) and one of the first pairs to venture back to Inner-London settled at Battersea Power Station in the year 2000. The nest site has remained active for over twenty years. During the renovation of the building as another cultural quarter for London, temporary digs were built while one of the chimneys they nested at were being refurbished, to great expense.
There are now nearly 1800 birds in the U.K, but are there any modern Peregrines living at St. Pauls today, stepping into the nest of the one held at the Museum of London?
As peregrines become more successful, more are making their home in the capital and pairs can be found in Lewisham, Ealing and even the Palace of Westminster. The pair based at the Tate Modern – one of whom is called Sheldon apparently, so I’m obviously a fan – occasionally pitch up at St. Paul’s to roost, but I suppose taller, more modern buildings are preferred and they use the iconic place of worship as a stop-off, rather than as a home.
*My* favourite pair however are the ones nesting in Charing Cross Hospital, because the hospital overlooks Margravine Cemetery. And seeing these beautiful birds with funerary sculpture in the background is fantastic.
Maybe another couple of peregrins will beat off the territorial Tate Modern couple and assume their place as one of the many peregrines who have nested at the dome of St. Pauls. Perhaps their fates will be better than the one encased in glass and wood.
My thanks to FaB Peregrines in helping me with some information for this blog.
References & Source Material
‘Peregrine Falcons are the top birds in Town‘ – Natural History Museum
‘Meet the Beast: Peregrine of St. Pauls‘ – The Museum of London
‘Everything you need to know about London’s Peregrine Falcons’ – The Londonist
‘The Peregrine Falcon in Inner London, D. Johnson