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Iowa egg collection reveals past birds, history of oology, and birth of bird conservation

Cabinets discovered in an Iowa farmhouse sheltered both a labor of love and an avian treasure chest
By Carrol Henderson | Published: 8/26/2005

Read an article by Carrol L. Henderson about birdwatching in Costa Rica.

brd-d1005-500During the past 20 years, I have had the opportunity to visit great birding destinations – Costa Rica, Peru, Patagonia, Kenya, New Zealand. One of my greatest birding trips, however, was to my hometown. The visit to Zearing, in central Iowa, took me back 100 years to an era when birding was very different from what it is today.

It was May 2003 when my brother Don called to tell me about his friend John Handsaker. John was getting married, and the Handsaker family was remodeling an old farmhouse on their property for the newlyweds. The house had previously been the home of John’s great-grandfather, Ralph Handsaker. When Ralph died in the late 1960s, the farmhouse was boarded up and left with all the furnishings in place. When John showed my brother around it, Don was amazed to see two large cabinets filled with thousands of bird eggs. My brother knew I would be interested, and he arranged for me to visit John on my next trip to Iowa.

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Avian odyssey

My visit began an odyssey of avian discovery that continues to this day. I learned that Ralph was a remarkable man. He was a farmer, naturalist, amateur taxidermist, hunter, angler, woodworker, wood carver, and oologist, a collector of wild bird eggs.

John showed me the two cabinets. Each had narrow drawers, made expressly for egg collections. The upper drawers were only two to three inches deep, the lower ones slightly deeper. Inside each drawer were dozens of bird eggs from all over the world. Each clutch was in a neat cardboard tray with cedar sawdust in the bottom to protect the eggs from insect pests like dermestid beetles. A detailed label contained the bird’s name, American Ornithologists’ Union species number, number of eggs, date collected, and collector’s name. The cabinets were avian treasure chests, providing great insight into birdlife from more than 100 years ago.

I was amazed that the collection had survived so many years in such excellent condition. I got permission from John and from his father and uncle, Dan and David Handsaker, who owned the farmhouse together, to document the collection. I visited six or seven times that summer, transcribing the information from the data tags and photographing each clutch of eggs. In sweltering 90-degree heat, I sat amid Ralph’s furniture and nature artifacts — dozens of mounted birds and animals, display boxes of butterflies, snakes preserved in jars — and marveled at the years of meticulous effort he had put into assembling and labeling his collection, clearly a labor of love.

With each visit I made, the Handsakers became more intrigued by my excitement. Sometimes Dan and David took time out from their farm chores to watch me working and to tell me stories about their grandfather. They remembered that he had made a special ladder to reach bird nests. About 12 feet tall, it had a hook at the top. He would climb the ladder up to a lower branch, then raise the ladder and hook it over a higher branch, going higher and higher into the tallest tree.

Ralph collected his first egg in 1898 at the age of 12 and, in possession of a federal permit, continued collecting through the 1920s and ’30s, adding only a few in the years after that. The last egg is dated 1963, when he was 77. His collection includes more than 3,600 eggs — 830 clutches of eggs representing 467 species: a King Penguin from Antarctica, a Red-throated Loon from Iceland, a Black-footed Albatross from Japan, a Cape Petrel from New Zealand, a Little Gull from Russia, a Razor-billed Auk from Scotland, and a Tufted Puffin from the Farallon Islands of California. There are 135 egg sets (or clutches) from Iowa, and 117 of these are from Story County, where I grew up. The oldest clutch consists of four Rose-breasted Grosbeak eggs collected at Auburndale, Massachusetts, in 1875. Most of the eggs were collected in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

As I examined each set and the data associated with them, I realized that Ralph’s eggs provided a wealth of information about the birds that laid them, the men who collected them (as far as I can tell, all the egg collectors were men), and the beginnings of bird conservation in America. In other words, after their long silence, Ralph’s eggs were talking, and they had a fascinating story to tell. Searching for information on bird cards, eggs books, and egg collectors, I have been trying to unravel that story ever since.

Scientific endeavor

Oology was a hobby brought to the United States from England in the late 1800s. But egg collectors (sometimes called “eggers”) considered it to be more than a hobby — for many of them, it was a scientific endeavor, and there was a standard protocol for collecting the eggs, blowing out the contents, and labeling the eggs. Using AOU species numbers to identify the eggs made it seem even more scientific.

Many prominent and affluent Americans were oologists, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his younger years and Edward Avery McIlhenny, scion of the company that makes Tabasco Sauce. The founder of the famous waterbird colony on Louisiana’s Avery Island, McIlhenny was the source of two sets of eggs in the Handsaker collection — Anhinga eggs from Port Arthur, Texas, and White Ibis eggs from Laccasius (possibly Lacassine), Louisiana. The stature of an oologist was determined by the size and diversity of his egg collection and the rarity of the eggs included. Ralph’s collection includes eggs of several species that are now endangered or declining — Black-footed Albatross from Japan, Wandering Albatross, Indian White-backed Vulture, and, in North America, Wood Stork, Bald Eagle, and Piping Plover.

Since eggs were unprotected in that era, they could be bought, sold, and traded. Oologists maintained an international network for trading and selling eggs through a monthly newsletter called The Oologist. It contained articles about egg collecting and ads for buying and selling eggs. Ralph’s collection contained eggs that he collected himself and that he acquired from more than 300 other collectors. It appears that he diversified his collection by trading eggs of Iowa prairie birds that were valued by collectors elsewhere.

A price for everything

Oologists created standardized price lists for all North American bird eggs. For example, Taylor’s Standard American Egg Catalogue, published in 1904, listed the “California Vulture” (Condor) egg at $350; the Bald Eagle at $8; the Horned Lark at $1; and the Blue Jay at 10 cents. Every egg had its price.

The Handsaker collection also included bird collector cards. They were very popular beginning in the late 1800s – we might think of them as an early form of field guide. (Remember, this was before Peterson’s field guides and before the development of good binoculars and spotting scopes.) The cards helped birdwatchers identify birds seen at a distance or glimpsed in flight. They featured birds, bird bills, birds with eggs, and sometimes only the eggs. Cards were produced by the Church & Dwight Co. (makers of Arm & Hammer Baking Soda), Singer Sewing Machine Co., Nestlé Chocolate, and several tea and tobacco companies, both here and in England.

Egg collectors could also learn about birds from “egg books” such as Nests and Eggs of North American Birds by Oliver Davie (1889), Nests and Eggs of Birds of the United States by Thomas G. Gentry (1882), and North American Birds Eggs by Chester A. Reed (1904). The publications featured paintings of eggs and described bird habitats, when and where nests could be found, and what they looked like.

What the eggs say

Many oologists were sincerely interested in birds and their welfare and believed that egg collecting did not have an adverse impact on birds. They collected an entire clutch of eggs because they thought that if they took all the eggs, the bird would lay more, and no harm would be done. Besides, they believed they were performing important research that justified the taking of wild bird eggs.

And they were at least partly right. Collections such as Ralph’s really “talk” – they provide important insights into early American birding traditions. People who were enthusiastic about birds were often oologists. They collected important biological information, and many were excellent naturalists who learned all they could about birds. Ralph, for example, liked to invite local school classes into his home to show children his eggs and to teach them about Iowa birdlife.

Oologists helped document the disappearance of birds when the landscape changed and bird habitats were lost. Among the records from Story County, Iowa, were the eggs of the Greater Prairie-Chicken (1900), King Rail (1904), Marbled Godwit (1904), and Northern Bobwhite (1904). These species disappeared from the county as corn and soybeans replaced a diverse farmland interspersed with prairie and wetlands. Ralph’s talking eggs tell us about breeding bird distribution across North America. The dates on which eggs were collected can be used to detect shifts in a bird’s nesting season resulting from climate changes and global warming.

Eggs from an earlier time became important in the 1960s. When broken eggs were found in the nests of Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, Ospreys, and Brown Pelicans, scientists hypothesized that something was affecting the birds’ calcium metabolism during the egg-formation process and making eggshells thinner so that they didn’t hold up during routine incubation activities. Researchers were able to compare the broken shells to the old eggshells in the oologists’ collections to show that eggshells had become thinner after the widespread use of DDT.

Now there is a new dimension for egg collections. The dried albumen inside collectors’ eggs can be used for DNA analysis of extinct and extirpated birds.

The dark side

Egg collecting probably did not affect long-term population trends of most common birds because of the relatively small numbers of egg collectors. However, there was a dark side to oology. Eggs became more valuable when a species became less common, and without any legal protection for rare birds or their eggs, this could have a serious impact. In Birds Over America, Roger Tory Peterson refers to an oologist from Philadelphia who owned 180 clutches of more than 700 Peregrine Falcon eggs. Another egger collected Peregrine Falcon eggs at the same aerie for 29 consecutive years. When the birds eventually abandoned the site, the collector attributed it to “civilization.” Peterson describes a Peregrine aerie where 30 egg collectors climbed a cliff in one day to collect the coveted clutch of eggs.

Around the turn of the century, egg collecting became caught up in the larger issue of bird protection. In the early 1900s, egrets, terns, and other waterbirds were being slaughtered for their plumes, which were used in ladies’ hats. In 1903, after egret poachers killed game warden Guy Bradley in South Florida, President Theodore Roosevelt designated Florida’s three-acre Pelican Island the nation’s first national wildlife refuge. (For more about Roosevelt’s lifelong interest in birds and his creation of the National Wildlife Refuge System, see “A Life with Birds” in the April 2003 issue of Birder’s World.)

Shortly afterward, women on the East Coast, outraged at the killing of birds for the millinery trade, organized bird clubs and created the National Association of Audubon Societies for the Protection of Wild Birds and Animals, a name later shortened to the National Audubon Society. In 1907 Gifford Pinchot, appointed by Roosevelt as the nation’s first federal forester, coined the word conservation to describe the “use of natural resources for the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time.”

On July 3, 1918, the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed, finally providing protection to all migratory birds and their feathers, nests, and eggs. The era of oology was at an end. But Ralph’s egg collection and reputation must have gained significant attention, because he was granted one of only three federal permits to collect wild bird eggs in the United States. Ralph continued collecting eggs for the next 20 years, adding just a few clutches after the 1930s. His last acquisition was a set of four Upland Sandpiper eggs collected in Story County on May 31, 1963. He was 77. Ralph died in 1969.

It is impressive to see how far bird protection and conservation have come in the last 100 years. The way we enjoy birds continues to evolve – from egg collecting to birdwatching to bird feeding, birding, Christmas Bird Counts, and listing. We have a plethora of field guides, tapes, CDs, cameras, binoculars, and spotting scopes to enhance our knowledge of birds. Birders collect valuable information on population trends and work to preserve important habitats and to protect endangered species. What next? As we enjoy the birds and develop new conservation actions for their benefit, we should reflect on how people will look back on us 100 years from now. Are we leaving a legacy that will enrich future bird habitats and birding experiences?

The Handsaker brothers want to preserve Ralph’s collection and are considering donating it so the eggs can continue to speak to us about the past. But the most important lesson of Ralph’s talking eggs is this: The real value of an egg is the miracle that lies within.

Carrol L. Henderson is nongame wildlife program supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the author of six books, including Landscaping for Wildlife; Wild About Birds: The DNR Bird Feeding Guide; and Field Guide to the Wildlife of Costa Rica (University of Texas Press, 2002). He described birdwatching in Costa Rica in our October 2004 issue. He is also the co-author of Lakescaping for Wildlife and Water Quality and Traveler’s Guide to Wildlife in Minnesota. He and his wife lead birding and wildlife tours to Latin America, Kenya, and New Zealand. They live in Blaine, Minnesota.