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The Evil Hobby of Egg Collecting Banned Since 1918

Dear Bird Folks,

Last year I found a robin’s egg in my backyard. Since robins are my favorite birds I decided to keep the egg and placed it on the mantel above my fireplace. Today my cousin told me that what I did is against the law and I could get into trouble for having this one robin’s egg. Is this true?

– Robin, Fall River, MA


Lucky you, Robin,

I’m jealous that your parents named you after a bird. I wanted to name my two kids after birds but my wife wouldn’t have it. Her feeling was that their friends might tease them because they had bird names. Tease them? I think my kids would have loved the two names I chose, but my wife thought the world wasn’t ready for two children named “Loon” and “Dodo.” She may have had a point.

Your cousin is correct. Technically speaking having that egg is against the law. I say “technically” because I don’t think SWAT teams of federal agents are going to surround your house just because you have a robin’s egg on your mantel. But they could do that because federal law protects birds. They are protected now because in the days before binoculars were invented birds weren’t treated very well. Back then anyone who wanted to get a closer look at a bird simply shot it, walked over, picked it up and studied it in their hands. Thousands of birds were shot in the name of science. While we could argue the pros and cons of the “shotgun” school of studying birds, the real problem was with market hunters and private citizens killing birds for their collections. Some collectors wanted stuffed birds while others only collected their eggs, but both groups had a severe impact on bird populations. In order to halt this rapid decline the government controlled or banned the possession of most birds – whether they be dead, alive or in egg form.

Most of us know that bird experts are called ornithologists, but I would bet few people know what egg experts are called. Want to guess? (No, they are not called “eggsperts.”) The folks who study eggs are called “oologists.” Yes, you read that right; they are oologists. Can you believe it? Talk about getting a bad job title. It sounds more like the name of someone who studies Scandinavian street signs.

In the early days an oologist’s main goal was to locate and gather as many different bird eggs as possible. They claimed that their work was done in the name of science, and perhaps they were right. However, there was another group that was much less professional at gathering eggs. They were the “egg collectors.” At first the name “egg collector” seems rather benign. It sounds more like a title given to a farmhand rather than an enemy of nature, but don’t let the name fool you. In the world of birds these people were evil.

Egg collectors were fanatical about collecting eggs. They wanted eggs from every species they could find and the rarer the bird the better. And they didn’t always stop at one egg. They often took all the eggs they found in order to trade with other collectors or to prevent competitors from getting any hard-to-find eggs. Nice, eh?

In order to keep a collected egg from turning rotten, the embryo had to be “blown” out through a tiny hole. A collector’s goal was to find freshly laid eggs, which were the easiest to blow out. (It is hard to remove a half grown chick through a tiny hole.) In order to ensure an egg was fresh, collectors would sometimes destroy an entire nest of eggs, which forced the adult birds to lay new eggs. Those new, fresher eggs were then taken for their collections, leaving the parent birds with nothing.

In 1918 the Feds decided enough was enough and banned the collection and possession of nearly all wild bird eggs. With the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, most American egg collectors chose to avoid possible trouble, handed their collections over to museums and got on with their lives. But such was not the case with our pals across the Pond. It has recently come to light that illegal egg collecting is still alive and well in Great Britain. British egg collectors, known there as “eggers” (not to be confused with American eggers who only work on Halloween), are a major problem. Eggers are clever, obsessed and fearless. Some have even died trying to secure a prized egg. This has forced officials to replace traditional monetary fines for stealing eggs with jail time. The newly introduced prison sentences are having the desired effect. Many of the eggers are giving up their illegal hobby because word on the street is that the egg thieves aren’t treated very well in the big house. It seems the “normal” criminals don’t like being associated with freaks who gain pleasure from having closets filled with dead eggs. In Britain even criminals have standards.

I’m sure you can understand why egg collecting had to be outlawed, Robin. But, I don’t think having a single robin’s egg on your mantel will get you any jail time. Although there are a few things worse than prison, like being an oologist named “Dodo.” That would be much worse.