An article in the July 22 New Yorker magazine brought back memories of my early days of birding. The essay by Julian Rubenstein is titled “Operation Easter,” but all it has to do with that religious holiday is its association with Easter eggs. The subtitle makes this clear: “The hunt for illegal egg collectors.”
Although the article is about criminal egg collecting in Great Britain, the practice is just as unlawful here. There is a federal law, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which makes it unlawful without a waiver “to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill or sell” 800 species of migratory birds or any bird parts including feathers, eggs and nests. Game birds are excepted with the Fish and Wildlife Service and state agencies establishing hunting seasons for them.
But waivers, mostly for scientific collecting, are issued. Those permits are very difficult to obtain today but, when I was young, permits to collect eggs were easier to get. In fact oology, the study and collecting of birds’ eggs, was then still a respected practice. There was even an international journal, The Oologist.
Three of my friends were participants in this activity and so, too, was Dudley DeGroot, the coach at the time of the University of Rochester football team. An All-American as a Stanford undergraduate, he later coached the Washington Redskins.
Don Spitz, one of the Rochester collectors, gave a talk to the Genesee Ornithological Society about his oological experiences. I already knew Don as a daredevil who climbed trees without hesitation, but I was floored when he told of his visit with DeGroot to Yosemite, where Don climbed a Sequoia. He wore leg irons but he couldn’t use a climbing rope because the tree circumference was too great. He had to grasp the bark to inch his way up several hundred feet.
But his worst experience was, he told us, climbing a sand bank to get an egg from a kingfisher’s burrow. Just as he reached the nest hole, the bird emerged, vomiting half-digested fish in Don’s face as it dashed past him.
I asked which eggs he thought were most attractive. Without hesitation he responded, “blue jay,” and he showed us one. It was blue-green like a robin’s egg but it was beautifully freckled on one end with dark spots.
One reason I never participated in this activity was the skill required in handling the eggs. No one wants a collection of rotten eggs, so their innards have to be removed. Don showed us how he did this by first drilling a small hole in a robin’s egg using a dentist’s drill. Then he carefully held a thin tube close to the hole and blew at it. The pressure this created inside the egg forced the albumen and yolk out, finally leaving the egg empty.
And very delicate. Don’s collections were protected in glass-covered trays seated inside in cotton batten.
Some collectors took eggs shortly before they were hatched, in those cases with an almost fully formed bird inside. They would leave the eggs in a tray of maggots, which would devour the embryos. Don did not approve of that gruesome practice.
He justified taking eggs from birds’ nests by the fact that the female would simply produce replacements. Unfortunately, there is more to the story than this. Just as bird watchers are more interested in observing rare birds, egg collectors are more interested in collecting rare bird eggs. And many collectors were (and still are) interested in having complete clutches of eggs. One of the reasons given for the extermination of the passenger pigeon was the collection of their eggs as the bird became rare.
Rubenstein describes how British law enforcement officials are trying to protect birds from collectors, some of whom are so uncontrollably driven that they cannot stop.
Here at one time a California condor egg was sold for $350, and a single collector bragged about gathering more than 700 peregrine falcon eggs. Those days may be gone, but I am certain that the practice continues here as it does in Britain.
If you take home an egg, nest or feather, no federal agent will pound on your door. But you still should not do so.