More and more people say their favorite hobby is bird-watching. Many travel to hot bird-watching spots, and keep lists of which birds they see and where. A hundred years ago, birders were just as enthusiastic, but they practiced the hobby very differently. They collected bird eggs. A Midwestern farm family recently discovered an ancestor’s egg collection when they were remodeling an old farmhouse. Experts say the collection has a lot to offer to scientists studying birds today. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill reports:
More and more people say their favorite hobby is
bird-watching. Many travel to hot bird-watching spots, and keep
lists of which birds they see and where. A hundred years ago,
birders were just as enthusiastic, but they practiced the hobby
very differently. They collected bird eggs.
A Midwestern farm family recently discovered an ancestor’s egg collection when they were
remodeling an old farmhouse. Experts say the collection has a
lot to offer to scientists studying birds today. The Great Lakes
Radio Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill reports:
Carrol Henderson considers himself a very lucky man. He’s the director of the non-game wildlife program at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He grew up on a farm in central Iowa.
Last summer, he learned that a family in his old neighborhood was renovating a farmhouse. It had belonged to Ralph Handsaker. When Handsaker died thirty years ago, the house was boarded up and left alone.
“… And when the family started renovating this old farmhouse for the great-great-grandson, John Handsaker, along with a number of old animal mounts and interesting things, there were these two large chests with about fifteen drawers each, that were totally filled with little sets of wild bird eggs.”
The smallest egg, from a hummingbird, was small enough to sit on top of a dime. The biggest was an ostrich egg almost six inches long. Some were creamy white, others were speckled, others streaked with color like a Jackson Pollack painting.
There were more than 3,600 eggs, representing more than 400 species of birds from all over the world. And they were in perfect condition.
“Each set of eggs was very neatly labeled with information about the day they were collected, who the collector was, and information about the habitat where the egg was collected. Some of these eggs went all the way back to 1875, and they were collected by over three hundred different people from all over the world.”
This is how nature-lovers expressed their passion in those days. They called themselves oologists. They kept their eggs in drawers lined with cedar sawdust to protect them from insects. They also kept meticulous records.
“So the scientific data was very high quality among these avid collectors. So even today, these provide very important nest records for birds that are now gone. Like in my home county of Story County, Iowa, there were Marble Godwits, King Rails, Prairie Chickens, and Bobwhite Quail, and those are all gone now.”
The birds disappeared as people turned prairies into farms. But Carrol Henderson says the records in the bird collection provide detailed information about where and when they nested.
“And another intriguing thing is that when these people blew out the eggs, there was still a lining of the egg white or albumen left inside the egg. And that still has the original DNA genetic material, so it actually would be possible for scientists to do DNA analysis of these eggs to take a look at how they may compare with birds nowadays.”
Henderson says these collectors didn’t think they were harming the birds. That’s because if their eggs disappear, most birds will lay another set. But competition for the eggs of rare birds was disastrous.
“One person in Philadelphia had a collection of over seven hundred Peregrine Falcon eggs. Another Peregrine egg collector went to the same cliff and collected all the eggs from the Peregrines every year for 29 consecutive years. And then finally the nest was abandoned. And he said it was abandoned due to encroaching civilization. That was where egg collecting really had something of a dark side.”
Eventually, attitudes began to change. In 1918, the federal government passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, to protect birds and eggs. But the government let three collectors keep on collecting. One of them was Ralph Handsaker. So his collection goes into the early 1950’s.
Carrol Henderson says there’s a lot to learn from these eggs. One of the best lessons is about human responsibility. Henderson says people these days enjoy nature differently than they did a hundred years ago. But we can still learn something from earlier methods.
“It’s like a little time machine: stepping back in time, seeing what was here, and then looking at what’s changed, and what does that mean for our own conservation efforts, how can we do a better job today to collect information and use that for our own conservation of wildlife species?”
Carrol Henderson’s article about the Handsaker egg collection will appear in the October issue of Birders World magazine. The Handsaker family is planning to donate the collection to a major university.
For the GLRC, I’m Stephanie Hemphill.