Some thoughts and insights into egg-collecting
By Dr John Ledger
In an article in The Guardian in 2012, writer Kevin McKenna expressed his surprise when he saw a BBC nature programme called Autumnwatch where Sir David Attenborough admitted to being an egg-collector in his early years. He was being interviewed by Autumnwatch presenter, Chris Pakham.
The two men were debating why so few young people in the United Kingdom were getting involved with nature.
“I’m out there all the time and I just don’t see the boy that I was and you were,” said Packham. “That’s a disaster in waiting, isn’t it?” And then Sir David said: “Yes, and part of the reason for that is that it’s no longer legal to be a collector. I openly admit that I collected birds’ eggs.”
McKenna: Sir David Attenborough collected birds eggs? I was quite overcome, for I, too, had collected birds’ eggs and have been made to feel like a pariah ever since. And a leper too. It got even better as Sir David added: “I knew when the right moment was to take one, and the bird would lay another, so you didn’t damage the population. I learnt a lot.”
The Scottish government and all those myriad outdoor agencies upon whom it lavishes millions tell us how beautiful are our big open spaces and how gorgeous are our fields and forests. Yet teachers won’t take children to them because of the risk assessment. So wouldn’t it be splendid if responsible egg-collecting could be introduced into the curriculum? We could limit the collectible eggs to the 20 most common or garden species like blackbirds, song thrushes, robins and chaffinches. And you wouldn’t need to go into the Highlands for them. Most of the wee birds like these lay a couple of clutches a year, so a couple of eggs here and there wouldn’t be missed.
We’d leave the eagles and the ospreys alone.
In South Africa it is illegal to collect birds eggs without a permit from the appropriate government agency at provincial level, and such a permit will rarely be granted unless the activity forms part of a scientific investigation by a suitably qualified researcher.
Egg-collecting has pretty much been criminalised by the authorities and demonised by the popular conservation media in most western countries. This has effectively stamped out what used to be a widespread activity in many countries, practiced by numerous young people who later became prominent conservationists or natural history communicators and educators like Sir David Attenborough himself.
In my own case, I grew up on a South African farm where my brother and I, along with the children of our farmworkers, made up a motley band of barefoot urchins, who scoured the countryside like primitive hunter-gatherers looking for food. We each wore a catapult around the neck, and the pockets of our shorts bulged with ammunition; suitably-sized and weighted roundish stones collected along the footpaths as we made our way to the hunting grounds.
We hunted birds, but we were not without ethics, because the golden rule was that whatever we killed we had to eat. We learnt rather quickly that a dove grilled over an open fire was quite delicious, whereas most brightly-coloured and insectivorous species certainly were not. The collective firepower from our catapults was quite formidable, and the accuracy and range that some our fellow-shooters could achieve was remarkable.
We never graduated to air-rifles, I think because my father thought they were a bit too lethal and that the urchins might get too big for their boots and forget their code of ethics. Apart from some nice twelve bore shotguns my father also had a nifty little over-and-under Remington, with a .22 long rifle above and a dinky .410 shotgun below. It also had a plastic stock, which was really gross, but that never worried us one bit. My father used the .22 for dealing with the feral cats that bothered his chickens, and would occasionally use the little shotgun to bag a Swainson’s Francolin for the pot.
My brother and I were occasionally allowed to take the Remington on a hunt, which was a huge privilege, and we mostly looked for francolins which were good to eat. My brother was a great shot, but an accident at school with a cricket ball left him with a dysfunctional right eye. He quickly learnt to shoot left-eyed, and on one memorable occasion dropped a running Swainson’s Francolin with a .22 bullet in the head. But just once, mind you! He probably forgot to move the little round selector on the side down to shotgun mode, but what the heck, we still talk about that shot around the fire fifty years later…
I graduated from the catapult classes and started collecting eggs. Like the young Attenborough, I learnt to study birds and their behaviour in order to find their nests. Spotting a bird flying with a twig or a feather in its beak meant it was building a nest, and sometimes hours were spent in observation mode to pin down the exact location. When I went to high school I met other boys who were also collectors, and we spent many, many happy hours cycling and walking in pursuit of new additions to our collections.
Over the years I built up a very attractive collection of eggs, some of them objects of great beauty which sat on white cotton-wool inside glass-topped drawers, each egg with a neatly-written label indicating the place and date of collection. But for me, each egg also represented an indelible memory of exactly where and how it had been collected; what challenges of tree-climbing had been overcome, the wet and filthy road culverts that were climbed down to reach a nest, and the horror of sticking your hand deep into the nesting burrow of a Pied Starling and touching a snake skin that the birds had used to embellish their boudoir!
I graduated from egg-collecting to bird-ringing (or ‘banding’, the term used in the USA). This provided endless pleasure as the skill of trapping birds, marking them with bands and hoping you would hear about what happened to them subsequently, was a great way of developing great young naturalists and ‘citizen scientists’ (a term only invented many years later). Imagine my absolute delight and sense of achievement when two Barn Swallows that I had originally banded as a schoolboy on my father’s farm were found in Russia and in Poland!
I subsequently went on to complete a degree in Zoology and a career in wildlife conservation, and served as Director of the Endangered Wildlife Trust for 17 years. My early interest in nature and the environment was sparked and nurtured by egg-collecting, some rather primitive hunting, and mostly of course by spending time in the countryside, learning to understand, outsmart and eventually hold a beautiful piece of nature’s miracle, biodiversity itself, in your hand.
As schoolboy egg-collectors we believed that it would not be right to take all the eggs from a nest. So if there were two eggs in the nest of a dove, for example, the first-finder would take one and we would leave one. Likewise if there were three eggs, we would only take one, although there was always a bit of a dilemma there, especially if it was a coveted species. And for species that only laid one egg, the dilemma and sense of guilt would be quite painful. Four eggs would see us each take one and leave two for the bird. A guineafowl nest can hold up to 20 eggs, so there was no issue here. We only kept a single egg of each species in our collections, and that was deemed sufficient.
We read about other egg-collectors who would take an entire clutch for their collection and indeed more than one clutch if they were really serious. We thought this was highly unethical, but we could have spared ourselves the fretting. Most bird species will simply start again if they lose a clutch of eggs, and will lay replacements, especially if they were lost early in the incubation cycle. Some species will even lay two or three replacement clutches if they are having a hard time at the hands of nest predators.
Our noble sentiments at leaving the birds with some eggs were mostly misplaced. By visiting the nest in the first place we would have left signs that could be read by a mongoose, a crow, or a snake, and they would have quickly taken the eggs we had so considerately left behind.
In most birds the eggs are the most expendable stage of the life cycle. In the wild, a host of predators actively seek out nests to eat the eggs or the chicks. It seems many species are geared to deal with this threat by re-laying, or double-clutching as the behaviour is technically termed, or even triple-clutching. The number of eggs that a female can produce in this way is remarkable, and indeed it is this talent that we harness in our egg-producing chicken farms.
There is a famous, diminutive Cape Robin-Chat living at the Delta Environmental Centre in Johannesburg. She was first captured and banded on 25 May 2000, and was subsequently recaptured and given a colour ring, and has been sighted regularly in the same locality, most recently in July 2018. She is at least 18 years old now, and has been breeding every year. This species first breeds at about two years, so she might even be older than 18. But let’s assume she has attempted to breed every year for 18 years, and assume that she loses one batch of three eggs every year and lays a replacement clutch. In 18 years she has possibly laid 108 eggs, and still occupies the same territory. This means that rather few of those 108 eggs have produced breeding adult birds, and it would not have mattered very much at all if some had been taken by egg collectors.
The phenomenon of double-clutching has been used with great success to bring the California Condor back from the very brink of extinction. In 1987 no birds remained in the wild, with only 27 in captivity. These surviving birds were intensively bred at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Los Angeles Zoo. Numbers rose through captive breeding and using double-clutching to increase the numbers of eggs that could be artificially incubated. Starting in 1991, condors were reintroduced into the wild. Since then the population has grown and as of December 2016 there were 446 condors living in the wild or in captivity – a truly remarkable achievement.
By removing each egg as it was laid, one researcher was able to induce several Sharp-shinned Hawks Accipiter striatus to lay 15 to 18 eggs during a one-month period. It is evident that many raptors possess the potential to lay more than one replacement clutch in a season.
It is thus evident that egg-collecting under strict control could be sustainable, and a valuable means of educating and interesting young people in nature and biodiversity conservation, as suggested by Sir David Attenborough and The Guardian writer.
Unfortunately, the strict control and proper checks and balances are unlikely to happen in the increasingly imperfect world in which we live. The commodification of wild birds’ eggs would simply add more pressure to the threats they already face from human activities. The late advent of wind farms in South Africa now poses a major new threat to a host of bird species, many of them slow-breeding raptors, threatened species, or migrants that are supposed to be afforded the protection of the Bonn Convention on Migratory Species.
Regrettably egg collecting is thus no longer a viable activity for young people any more, but their interest in nature and the environment can instead be ignited by photography, bird-banding and, of course, hunting.
Dr John Ledger is an independent consultant and writer on energy and environmental issues, based in Johannesburg, South Africa. John.Ledger@wol.co.za