Birds' Eggs: A Display on the History of Egg Collecting

Published on 27th October 2017

The Library has a new display, which coincided with Professor Tim Birkhead's talk last Thursday, The Most Perfect Thing: a Birds' Egg. The display looks at the history of egg collecting has been represented through our manuscripts and book collection.

Collecting birds’ eggs began in the 1600s when scholars and naturalists began to acquire natural history objects and create cabinets of curiosities. The Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522–1605) produced voluminous tomes on all aspects of natural history, and owned many curiosities in his museum, which opened posthumously in 1617. His collection contained an ostrich egg, amazing for its sheer size, but also several monstrously large and deformed hen’s eggs. Aldrovandi's chapter on hens includes a substantial section on their reproductive system and the mechanisms that lead to the creation of an egg.

Remarks on the First Order of Aquatic Birds, by William Markwick
Remarks on the First Order of Aquatic Birds, by William Markwick

Naturalists and scholars have been studying, collecting, drawing, and dissecting eggs for centuries. They have been attempting to answer questions such as: How are eggs made within the female reproductive system? Why do they differ in shape and colour? How is the egg shell formed and when?

Birds’ eggs were collected—sometimes far too assiduously—for their shape, their spectacular colours, or their rarity. Collections were then organised according to colour, size, shape or texture.

In his manuscript, 'Remarks on the First Order of Aquatic Birds' (1800), William Markwick (1739–1813), a naturalist from Sussex, painted the birds but rarely their eggs. Yet he made an exception for the Woodcock, because, as he noted on the next page: ‘As the eggs of this Bird are rare in our Country, [I] have figured one which was presented to me by a friend.’

Guillemot eggs, such as the ones depicted in Henry Seebohm's A History of British Birds, with Coloured Illustrations of Their Eggs (1883–1885), have long fascinated and intrigued naturalists and biologists, due to their pointed shape and their vibrant and varied colours.

British Birds' Eggs and Nests, Popularly Described, by J C Atkinson (1862)
British Birds' Eggs and Nests, Popularly Described, by J C Atkinson (1862)

Egg collecting is now forbidden, but used to be part a young naturalist's training. John Christopher Atkinson wrote British Birds' Eggs and Nests, Popularly Described in 1862, so ‘that it may be interesting and useful to young egg-collectors’. In his introductory chapter, he defended himself against accusations of ‘cruelty’ from ‘some of his conscientious friends’: ‘If I thought there was any real (…) connection between a love of egg-hunting (…) and cruelty, I would not say another word for it or about it. But I am sure that the real lover of birds and their nests and eggs is not the boy who is chargeable with those torn and ruined nests (…) which grieve one as he walks along the lanes and hedge sides.’

Linnaeus's Coat of Arms
Linnaeus's Coat of Arms

The egg is central to the understanding of life. William Harvey (1578–1657) famously asserted that everything comes from an egg (ex ovo omnia). Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) readily adopted this, annotating a copy of Harvey's work. In an early botanical manuscript, Linnaeus drew an anatomised egg, and wrote that every egg must be impregnated to allow procreation—be it the seed of a plant or the egg of an animal. When in 1761 Linnaeus was ennobled and designed his own coat of arms, he placed an egg at the center of the escutcheon, whose three colours symbolised the three kingdoms of nature. Linnaeus's coat of arms was later integrated in the Linnean Society's coat of arms.

The display ends with a reflection regarding the impact of man on birds and their eggs. It evokes the over-hunting and over-collecting that led to the extinction of the Great Auk in 1844, and the harmful effect of pesticides (notably DDT) on birds' eggs like the Peregrine's.

Come and see the display!

The Library is open Monday to Friday, 10am to 5 pm, and accessible to all. It is recommended to contact us before your visit, as the Library is sometimes closed for functions.

Isabelle Charmantier, Deputy Librarian