Oology and Ralph's Talking Eggs: Bird Conservation Comes Out of Its Shell

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People's methods for learning about the lives of birds have varied throughout the decades. Today, birders learn about their feathery subjects by using binoculars, telescopes, sound recording devices and cameras, while ornithologists and molecular biologists add further insight by analyzing avian DNA, transponder data and satellite information. But such powerful technologies have not always been available, so people have relied on other methods to learn about birds. For example, between the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, people weren't "birders" according to the current understanding of this word; instead, they relied on hunting -- and especially egg collecting -- to gain a clearer understanding of wild birds and their habits, as described by Carrol L. Henderson in his new book, Oology and Ralph's Talking Eggs: Bird Conservation Comes Out of Its Shell (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press; 2008). Professional scientists that kept meticulous records of their growing museum egg collections were formally known as Oologists, from oölogy [Latin ovum; Greek Åion: egg]; the collection and study of eggs, especially birds' eggs.

But not all egg collectors were professional scientists. In fact, a fair number were amateurs who were serious egg collectors; swapping eggs amongst themselves, or occasionally purchasing them for their collections. One of those "eggers", Iowa farmer Ralph Handsaker, was a neighbor to the author who ended up transforming the author's life one day. Handsaker did this innocently enough when he introduced the author to a large curiosity cabinet in his living room. Even though henderson was a child when he first saw the bird and egg collections contained in these cabinets, he was immediately hooked. Henderson invested the rest of his life into birds; working with them professionally, writing about them, photographing them, and even searching for birds' nests.

So this quiet but well-written little volume can be viewed as a tribute to the now-deceased Handsaker and his remarkable egg collection that inspired the author and changed the course of his life. The book opens with Henderson describing the circumstances that allowed him to document the more than 4,000 individual eggs that Handsaker had gathered and prepared between 1875 and 1963; how he copied data from each of the more than 800 sets of these eggs and their nests, and photographed them all. But as the author worked with this collection over the ensuing months, he realized that its value exceeded the recorded data themselves, extending to the historical and cultural changes that occurred in America during the time period when this collection was amassed.

Henderson describes the heyday of oology from when it first became popular in America in the 1880s. He describes how eggs were collected, the tools used to remove the contents of eggs leaving the shells intact, and describes how the eggs were labeled. He includes images of some of the popular bird trading cards that originally came in Arm and Hammer Baking Soda boxes and were quickly emulated by a large number of other American companies, and mentions some the catalogues that were published for the purpose of selling bird eggs. He also writes a brief summary for a number of early oology books that were available in the United States.

In the next chapter, "Early Exits from the Land", the author notes that Handsaker's collection contained eggs from the only pair of Northern hawk owls that ever nested in North Dakota (1897) and the last recorded nest of Marbled Godwits (1907) in Iowa. That said, Henderson goes on to describe the role that oology might have played in the decline, and in some cases, eventual extinction of some iconic North American bird species; whooping cranes, trumpeter swans, peregrine falcons, ivory-billed woodpeckers, eskimo curlews, passenger pigeons and California condors.

Using a series of gorgeous photographs, the next chapter provides the reader with a brief education to the shapes, textures, colors and markings of eggs, the similarities between eggs produced by closely related species, and a comparison of sizes between eggs produced by the largest and smallest of bird species. I was especially impressed by the lovely photograph of a variety of wild bird eggs provided by Yale University's Peabody Museum of Natural History and the stunning lithograph by Henry Seebohm that depicts variations in Razorbill egg markings -- either of which would make a fabulous poster.

Henderson then writes accounts for 60 species of birds whose eggs were part of the Handsaker collection. Each account includes the species' common and scientific names, its various historic common names, the monetary value of one of its eggs in 1904, followed by a comparison of the conservation status for the species in the late 1800s to its current situation. Each species account includes photographs or lithographs of the bird, and a photograph of its eggs and sometimes the nest, that Handsaker collected.

The last several chapters review how things have changed one hundred years later; from environmental and land-use changes to the effects of 'citizen science'. There is a short discussion regarding the importance and value of egg collections to science, and also include some pictures of captive hatching trumpeter swans cygnets, which are unbelievably cute. In the epilogue, Henderson tells us the fate of Handsaker's large and well-documented egg collection.

This beautiful and well-produced book is 177 pages long, and is printed on luscious, heavy paper. Hundreds of color images of Handsaker's egg collection, birds, artwork and other items are inset into the text throughout the book. For those who wish to learn more about oology, the book has an eight page bibliography and a ten page index. I found this book's topic and story to be both interesting and unusual, and it gave me a new appreciation for the history of avian conservation in the United States -- much of which was influenced by "egging" and by egg collectors themselves. Bibliophiles, nature book collectors and those with an interest in American history and conservation will especially enjoy this book.

Carrol L. Henderson is a nature photographer, writer, and wildlife biologist and has headed the Nongame Wildlife Program of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for thirty years. His bird photography has appeared in the New York Times, Audubon, Birder's World, and the World Book Encyclopedia Yearbook of Science. He lives in Blaine, Minnesota.

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