History of Bird and Egg Collecting

egg collector

For thousands of years, all over the world, wild and domesticated birds’ eggs have been collected for food.  Collecting birds’ eggs for something more than food, however, was actually quite a novel idea, and during the Victorian Era (1800s through early 1900), became very popular among elite gentleman collectors, naturalists, and hobbyists from England, Europe, and the United States.  In addition, government- and museum-sponsored expeditions to document unique species all over the world also fueled a natural history collecting “mania” during this period.

Wealthy collectors amassed incredibly large collections of bird (and other animal) materials.  Lord Rothschild of England, for example (who was wealthy enough to loan money at least twice to the National Bank of England during his life), amassed the largest collection of birds and eggs of any private collector on the planet between 1880 and 1931 – more than 300,000 specimens, collected from all over the world.  In regard to eggs and nests in particular, he collected approximately 11,750 egg sets and 930 nests, which are now part of the British Museum of Natural History.  Allan Hume, who was British but worked in the Indian Civil Service, had the largest collection of Asiatic bird skins, eggs, and nests in the world -- more than 100,000 specimens collected between 1862 and 1885, including ca. 4,000 egg sets.  In the U.S., Johnathon Dwight (1858-1929) collected 65,000 bird skins from North America, Costa Rica, and Guatemala, and left the American Museum of Natural History, in New York, 55,000 of these skins at the time of his death and thousands of sets of eggs.  And William Brewster, who in the 1880s was the chair of the American Ornithologists’ Union Committee on Bird Protection, collected 40,000 North American bird specimens, including thousands of egg sets  that now reside at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, in Harvard, Massachusetts.

These collectors contributed a lot of useful information to the science of ornithology.  Rothschild, for instance, created his own museum in Tring, England, and made his reference collection of bird skins and eggs, as well as his wonderful bird library, available to researchers.  He and other collectors published regularly in scientific outlets such as The Ibis and the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club (in England), or in The Auk or the Condor (in the U.S.).  Other periodicals including The Oologist, the Journal of the Museum of Comparative Oology, and The Nidologist also regularly published descriptive studies of the eggs and nests discovered by egg collectors and by people referring to themselves as “oologists” (individuals who studied eggs).

From the late 1700s until the late 1800s, governments, wealthy collectors, and large museums such as the British Museum of Natural History, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Smithsonian, commonly funded expeditions around the world to procure bird specimen materials – the main goal being to describe new species.  These expeditions employed “field collectors” to acquire the materials, and included many famous naturalists who also often published the results of their findings, such as Charles Darwin and his contemporary Alfred Russell Wallace. 

 egg collector2  thomas burt
 An egg collector ready to climb down the cliff to collect bird eggs          Thomas E Burt looking at nest of Pied-billed Grebe, 1899

In the U.S., the 1804-1806 survey conducted by Captains Merriweather Lewis and William Clark was the first to bring back birds from the western U.S.  In addition, Major Charles Bendire (1836-1897), who worked as an officer of the U.S. Army for more than 20 years in the western U.S., was known for his collections of birds’ eggs, and for the detailed notes he took on them and on their nests.  He donated approximately 8,000 sets of eggs to the Smithsonian that he collected in the western U.S. from Mexico to Canada, and was the first curator of the oology collection for the museum.  In a famous story about the realities and perils of collecting eggs in the field, in 1872 Bendire was up in a tree collecting a Zone-tailed Hawk’s (Buteo albonotatus) egg in Arizona, when Apaches fired on him.  To protect the egg, he put it into his mouth, and was chased back to his camp.  At the camp, he found that he couldn’t get the egg out of his mouth, and so several men had to help extract the egg -- and a tooth -- to get it out without breaking it!  The egg is still held, unbroken, at the Smithsonian.

birds eggs pricelist

Besides being collected by professional ornithologists and naturalists, birds’ eggs and nests were also collected by hobbyists.  In the U.S., it was legal for a private individual to collect birds’ eggs and nests without a permit, and to sell them, up until the 1940s.  Eggs were said to have been collected with “devotion akin to that seen among today’s birdwatchers”.  The hobby probably even surpassed that of stamp collecting.  In the U.S., for example, wild bird eggs were advertised for sale and trade in numerous catalogs. 

Of course, some hobbyist collectors were more interested in how many eggs they could get, and how rare they were, rather than their value for science.  These individuals eventually gave a bad name to “oology”, and led to the publication of books such as Ethics of Egg-collecting, by Eric Parker (1936), and numerous letters and articles in professional ornithological journals debating the pros and cons of continued egg-collecting.  Another group of collectors, which we refer to as the “market collectors”, were those people who collected eggs for sale on the mass market for as many types of buyers as possible.  Their impact on some bird species in the late 1800s and early 1900s -- including penguins off the coast of Africa, and Laysan Albatrosses (Phoebastria immtabilis) whose eggs were collected for their whites, to use in the photo industry -- may have contributed to declines of such species, especially when they were coupled with the impacts of habitat alteration and the use of parts (such as feathers) in ladies’ fashions. 

laysan albatross egg collecting 
Collecting Laysan Albatrosses eggs

Market collectors took about 10 million Common Murre eggs between 1850 and 1900 from the Farallon Islands off the northern Californian coast, for sale to markets and restaurants in San Francisco. Good egg collectors took egg clutches early in a field season so that birds could re-lay; in contrast, destructive egg collectors would take all of the eggs of all of the birds in a locality – for example, a nesting colony – during the entire breeding season.  This type of collecting, combined with the detrimental effects of the millinery trade on birds, caused outrage among ornithologists and interested lay-people around the world, and led to the enaction of laws in the early 20th century limiting bird and egg collecting to those specimens needed only for scientific purposes. 

At this time, due to the impacts of irresponsible egg collecting, and in addition, to continued professional debate over the scientific value of the discipline of oology, the popularity of this pursuit among both professionals and amateurs began to dwindle.  Thus, by the 1940s, with private collecting of wild birds’ eggs restricted in the U.S. by legislation protecting birds, and some scientific institutions not wanting to increase (or even keep) their egg holdings, the time was ripe for a safe repository for egg collections in the U.S.  It was at this point in time that Ed Harrison created the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology.

Today in the U.S., there are few to no problems with irresponsible collectors illegally collecting eggs, but the problem does still exist in England, where “notorious” egg collectors are still caught and fined.  David Schwartz called this a “uniquely English preoccupation”.  For example, Colin Watson -- who died in May 2006 by falling from a tree while investigating a bird’s nest – was arrested in 1985 when it was found that he had more than 2,000 egg sets in his home, all apparently taken illegally.  In 2005, another seven egg collectors were sent to jail in England for 3 months, and in January 2007, collector Greg Wheal was jailed for his 14th illegal egg-collecting conviction since 1987. 

Source: Purcell, R., Hall, L.S., and Corrado, R. 2008. Egg & Nest. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.


Fun Fact:
James Bond – 007 or Ornithologist?

James Bond
The Real James Bond who inspired Ian Flemming's character in 007

Ian Fleming, the author of the fictional  character James Bond, was also an avid bird watcher. While living in Jamaica, Fleming came across a bird guide book written by the real James Bond and felt that because his name was “ordinary”,  asked if he could use it for his fictional novels.  Even though this name is far from “ordinary” now,  most don’t know that the real 007 they read or watched was actually an expert ornithologist.

James Bond was born in the states in 1900  but later on moved to England with his family.  Bond studied at Trinity College in Cambridge and moved back to the states in 1922.  Bond only spent a few unhappy years in  the banking business before switching to a career he felt more passionately about.  At the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, P.A. , Bond  rose to become the curator of ornithology as well as becoming an expert of Caribbean birds.
(read more about the real James Bond)

eggs collected by bond  Birds of the West Indies  Ian Fleming Signature
Eggs collected by James Bond                                     Book written by James Bond in 1936                   Book signed by Ian Fleming and given  as a gift to the real James Bond. 

Movie James Bond
In Die Another Day, the actor portraying James Bond, Pierce Bronson, was seen examining  the book
Birds of the West Indies. Just one of the many small tributes dedicated to the ornithologist James Bond.