This week RON TOFT visits the world’s biggest collection of birds’ eggs at the Natural History Museum at Tring
EVERY week, the Natural History Museum’s Hertfordshire-based Bird Group is offered at least one collection of birds’ eggs dating back to the first half of the 20th century or the last half of the 19th century. That was the era when egg-collecting was a popular hobby in Britain.
All too often, however, such collections – usually discovered by chance stored away in a long forgotten corner of a loft – are virtually worthless from a scientific standpoint because they lack vital information, such as where, when and by whom the eggs were collected. Sometimes even the species’ names are missing.
“The saddest part of my job as a curator of eggs is that the scientific use to which we can put the vast majority of collections we are offered is quite limited because there is no accompanying data,” says Douglas G.D. Russell, who is responsible for looking after the NHM’s huge repository of birds’ eggs from around the world.
“Sometimes a collection we are offered might contain well-defined clutches of, say, blackbird, song thrush and robin eggs but with only subjective accompanying information, such as they were collected by the owner’s grandfather when he was living in Oxfordshire in the 1930s.
“Unfortunately, subjective information isn’t really of much use, for collectors bought and sold eggs in almost a stamp collecting type of way.”
What Douglas would very much like to hear about are fully annotated historic collections of eggs – of which there are probably still many in people’s lofts – hidden among a grandfather’s or even a great grandfather’s long-forgotten possessions.
“I am extremely keen to make people holding data-rich collections of eggs in their attics aware of the potential importance of these collections to conservation and science,” he tells me.
“That’s the message I would really like to convey to Cage & Aviary Birds readers and other members of the public.”
Douglas is offered “far fewer” of the data-rich collections because “the really good, well-annotated collections tend to be the better organised ones – and they are usually in the hands of people who appreciate their significance.”
One really useful historic collection donated to the NHM in 2009 came from Brokerswood Country Park. “It’s the superbly documented David Barber collection of more than 2,000 data-rich clutches of eggs from various parts of the world.”
Many collectors, says Douglas, never clearly or accurately recorded their collections, even omitting to write down the names of the species from which the eggs had come. He finds this “especially depressing,” given the fact that egg collecting was a popular British hobby among children and adults alike until conservation concerns were voiced and legislation was passed that banned egg-collecting.
An unexpected surprise
Another wheat-among-the-chaff example dates back to a call received by Douglas a few years ago from a man “who was very keen indeed to show us the collection of eggs that had come into his possession. He brought them to us in a pair of World War 2 ammunition cases!”
Unfortunately, some 90 per cent of the eggs were of poor provenance. “They weren’t identified and had been blown in such a way as to indicate that it was probably a childhood collection.”
Yet lurking at the bottom of one of the trays was a small series of eggs collected on a river island in Patagonia. “All of the eggs bore the identification of the species, the full date, the precise location of the island and a set of initials – all in beautiful copperplate handwriting. The detail was extraordinary.
“I suspect, although I have no direct evidence of this, that the small collection of Patagonian birds’ eggs had been a gift to a child and that these had inspired the youngster to start his own collection in the 1930s,” he says.
Egg collections offered to the NHM are now assessed as follows:
■ Data-rich collections, containing clear and accurate information regarding species, date and locality (such eggs end up in the museum’s legally accessioned archives);
■ Data-poor collections, which are accompanied by the names of the species represented but are short of accurate date and locality information;
■ Data-less collections, in which eggs are not properly identified and there is no information as to when and where the clutches were collected. Collections that fall into the data-less category lack any scientific value and are not accepted by the NHM.
Douglas says he is “determined to find as many conservation and scientific uses as possible for our egg collections, including the data-poor material. The latter, for example, can be used to facilitate a range of scientific investigations impossible with the main series of eggs because such investigations necessitate some sort of destructive analysis.”
Although Douglas curates a priceless collection of eggs laid by wild birds, he is nevertheless always interested in hearing from aviculturists who might be able to supply eggs from captive-bred birds belonging to species not currently represented in the NHM collection. In that regard, he has already worked closely with members of the World Pheasant Association.
The next little job...
Douglas is about to embark on a long-term project aimed at reorganising the NHM’s entire collection of eggs to create more space. “I am also looking at re-evaluating the species represented in our collection, which is indisputably the most comprehensive of its kind anywhere in the world,” he says.
The NHM has examples of about 52 per cent of all known bird species among its roughly 300,000 sets of eggs.
“Our collection of eggs is growing faster than any of the other bird collections at the NHM,” adds Dr Russell.
“Where legally and ethically possible, we always strive to obtain eggs of species not currently represented at the museum and to utilise technology to study the origin and evolution of eggs in ways that were not possible in the past.”
How to stay legal
PRE-1954 collections containing eggs of species that have bred or potentially bred in the UK can be held privately, but not sold in the UK.
However, the onus is on the individual to show on a balance of probability that no eggs were taken in contravention of the relevant Acts – i.e. the Protection of Birds Act 1954 and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Offering “historic” collections to a museum is, says Douglas, “the obvious legal way to dispose of them.”
Freelance journalist and photographer Ron Toft specialises in wildlife, aviculture and veterinary feature articles.