Say what you will about Victorian egg collectors, but it’s hard to deny that they were a dedicated lot. Charles Bendire, a 19th-century ornithologist and U.S. army major, once braved enemy fire to snag a rare bird egg from a tree, cushioning it in his mouth while he scrambled down to safety; upon finding that the egg was stuck in his mouth, he had his men remove one of his teeth to free it. Another egg enthusiast, Frances J. Britwell, was strangled to death by his climbing rope while trying to reach a nest in a tall pine tree on his honeymoon. Egg collecting was considered a hobby for gentlemen, but it was not for the faint of heart.
Today, the fruits of these collectors’ tree-shimmying, egg-swallowing labor can be found in museum collections around the country: Shiny green clutches laid by South American tinamous; nondescript speckled eggs deposited in other birds’ nests by cowbirds; the occasional massive, melon-sized elephant bird egg; all tucked away in floor-to-ceiling drawers.
“The scientific value of the collection and the accompanying manuscripts is immense,” says Douglas Russell, the senior curator of birds’ eggs and nests at the London Natural History Museum. “We have inquiries and researchers visiting the collection from all over the world,” working on projects “from historical research on breeding distribution to ground-breaking research to unveil the biology of eggs and explain the diversity in eggshell coloration, patterning, and shell-structure across birds.”