28 Jul 2018

I Might Be a Criminal

by Jan Thornhill

Yes, that's right. I might be a criminal. I might have inadvertently broken a law. Not only that, but, as it turns out, I might also have been breaking this law continuously for 20 years. 

Here's my story: Twenty years ago, someone offered me an antique bird's egg collection she'd got at a local auction some time earlier and no longer had reason to keep. Having heard about the "museum-in-a-bag" I drag around with me when I visit schools, she'd thought it would be right up my alley. She was correct. 

The collection was obviously old. Really old. The soft cotton batting that protected the blown egg shells was flecked with impurities and had browned with age. The names written neatly with fountain pen on the papered edges of the wooden box dividers had faded. Even some of the eggs had faded. The box itself was charmingly ancient.

The collection's faded robin egg compared to a piece of a fresh one.

Even the names suggested times of yore. Though many of the eggs were labelled with common names we still use today, such as "Crow" and "Robin," (albeit, some with creative spelling, i.e. "Meddallark" for meadowlark), others bore nicknames that have long since been replaced, i.e. "High Hole" for flicker. Yet others seemed to have been invented by the collector, such as "Purplest Swallow" (for a Purple Martin egg), and my personal favourite, a grackle egg that's labelled "Lightning Black Bird."  

"High Hole" is an old name for a flicker woodpecker.
"Lightning black bird" is a made-up name for a grackle.
Does anyone know offhand the dialect/accent
 that makes "meadow" medda? 

Because of all these things, I'd always been sure that the collection was really old – which at first was just an element of its charm. 

But then, while researching The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk, I discovered that it has been illegal to collect, purchase, or possess [my italics] bird eggs since 1916 when the North American Migratory Bird Treaty was jointly signed by Canada and the U.SI did some digging and found out that if I could prove that my egg collection predated the treaty, I could keep it free and clear. Otherwise, it was possibly illegal for me to own it. Suddenly the actual age of the collection mattered. But I had no proof of its antiquity. For all I knew, it could have been fifty years old or a hundred and fifty. 

The Great Auk egg page of my book,
  The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk.

The North American Migratory Bird Treaty is a cornerstone of world conservation efforts. In the early years of the 20th century, wild bird numbers were rapidly declining. They were in trouble. For centuries, there had been unregulated slaughter of native birds – for food, for taxidermy, for feathers, or just for fun. Eggs, too, were collected, sometimes for food, but also for fun: on both sides of the Atlantic, egg collecting was a popular hobby for more than a hundred years, which meant that even the eggs of the smallest songbirds were considered fair game, eggs so tiny they would be suitable only for a doll's breakfast. The pastime was so common throughout the 19th and early 20th century that there was a brisk business in bird egg trade, sales, and auctions as collectors, or oologists, tried to complete their collections. Naturally, the eggs of the rarest birds were the most exciting acquisitions.

Many ground-nesting song birds are secretive about the locations
of their nests. 
If I hadn't been hunting for morels,
I never would have found this Song Sparrow nest.  

Granted, egg collecting could be challenging. First a nest had to be located and once it was found it had to be watched to gather the eggs at the optimum time – within a few days of being laid, so they could be "blown" while the yolk and albumen were still liquid. Blowing an egg was a delicate operation. A tiny hole was first drilled through one end with a needle. A slender pipe was then carefully inserted into the hole. Blowing into the pipe forced the contents of the egg to dribble out around it, (and presumably down the blower's fingers!). 

Note the needle holes in the centres of the two upended
eggs. Beside them is a High Hole egg that was
 not so expertly pierced before being blown.

Egg collecting could also be dangerous. In 1913, a man fell 200 feet to his death while trying to collect eggs from a Peregrine Falcon aerie. If two young women collecting wildflowers at the base of the cliff hadn't stumbled upon his body by accident, he may never have been found. Another man, Francis Birtwell, climbed 75 feet up a tree to reach a nest while honeymooning in New Mexico. On his way down, a rope looped around his neck, strangling him while his horrified bride watched from the below.

Many egg collections, sometimes containing thousands of "sets" of eggs (eggs from a single nest) were eventually donated to museums once the Migratory Bird Treaty came into effect. Because the oologists or "eggers" often kept detailed records of where and when the eggs had been collected, their collections are now invaluable to researchers, particularly in tracking changing nesting times, which is critical information in these times of climate change.

The ROM's ornithology department holds
almost 12,000 bird eggs. (Frankie Thornhill)
Which brings me back to my possibly criminal act.

Since I was unable to prove that my collection predated the treaty, and I had no intention of destroying the collection, (besides which, they're awkward things to store), I took the museum route. I called Mark Peck at the Royal Ontario Museum (see here for my post about the ROM's Great Auk) to see if I could donate my collection to their own collection of almost 12,000 eggs. Sadly, because mine had no provenance (documented chronology of ownership, etc.), nor any data about where or when the eggs were collected, they can't be used for study. But they will have a home in the ROM's extra egg cabinet. And I can stop worrying about the RCMP breaking down my door in the middle of the night.

And, oh yeah, I went back to the Song Sparrow nest eight days later. All five eggs had hatched. 

No? Here's a closer view.

And here I temporarily moved the grasses aside.

August 21, 2018

I sent a link to this post to Mark Peck at the ROM and, in response, he told me about a Canadian citizen scientist nest monitoring program that anyone can join: Project NestWatch

Go to their website to see how It works:

Step 1:  Register for Project NestWatch 
Step 2:  Learn how to find and monitor nests using the resources provided on this site
Step 3:  Search for nests around your home, school, cottage, or elsewhere
Step 4:  Monitor your nest(s) throughout the breeding season
Step 5:  Submit your data online and contribute to Canada's national nest records database!

1 comment:

Mycologista said...

Gorgeous post. I would have cried or become airborne if someone gave me that box.
Regarding the "meadow/medda" question, the word was in print in 1897, according to this publication (p. 109):