Wardrobe drawer containg bird eggs from the William Gibbs collection. Photograph by George Serras. National Museum of Australia.

What bird (egg) is that?

How many species of birds can you identify just by looking at the size, shape and colour of their eggs? For me, the answer is probably one or two, so I recently asked collection donor Bill Gibbs and ornithologist Dick Schodde to visit the Museum to help describe the species represented in some 276 bird eggs. For me, engaging with these beautiful eggs provoked complicated thoughts of loss and appreciation.

Australians have long been fascinated with their continent’s bird life, but the question has always been how to actually record the characteristics of different species. In the 19th century, before high-powered binoculars and cameras became available, professional ornithologists tended to shoot or otherwise kill birds and add them to their collections as mounted taxidermy or skin specimens. Many enthusiasts, however, and especially young and amateur collectors who couldn’t afford to have specimens prepared, focused on oology, or collecting eggs. Indeed, at one stage, Australia was gripped by something of an oological craze,with individuals competing to build the most encyclopaedic collection or to get hold of eggs from the rarest species.

Birds eggs of Victoria (folio detail), from Australia Terra Cognita (unpublished) by William Blandowski, 1855-56, via Wikimedia Commons

Birds eggs of Victoria (folio detail), from Australia Terra Cognita (unpublished) by William Blandowski, 1855-56, via Wikimedia Commons

Pretty soon, bird lovers were becoming concerned about the impact of egg collecting on bird species and by the early 20th century, destructive studies were being replaced by observation and photography. In 1909, the Gould League of Bird Lovers (now the Gould League) was established with the aim of bird protection, and particularly the prevention of bird egg collecting, and moved quickly into delivering environmental education programs for children. In the 1930s, the Royal Australian Ornithologists’ Union (now Birdlife Australia) adopted a policy that the gathering of specimens, except under government permit, was not acceptable and it too increasingly focused on conservation of species rather than collecting. Today, collecting and trading eggs from native species is prohibited under Commonwealth and state conservation laws.

Despite this shift, it seems that many young Australians, and particularly boys growing up in the country, continued to collect bird eggs through the 1960s; and the Museum has recently acquired a collection of 276 eggs that records this aspect of our country’s birding history. Bill Gibbs grew up on the outskirts of Bendigo in Victoria and spent his leisure time cycling around the nearby bush and farmland with his best friend. Like other mates at school, Bill and his friend were keen egg collectors. They spent hours searching out different species, observing pairs nesting and then, when the time was right, removing the eggs.

Bill Gibbs in the backyard of his family home, around 1965. Courtesy William Gibbs.

Bill Gibbs in the backyard of his family home, around 1965. In the background is some of the bush where he collected bird eggs. Courtesy William Gibbs.

Today, Bill is remorseful about taking many of the eggs, particularly those of species now listed as threatened or endangered. But at the time, egg collecting was a way of engaging in an intimate and enjoyable way with the natural environment as well as participating in a community of egg collectors. Bill went to considerable lengths to care for his collection. Once he got the day’s find home, he carefully blew the contents from the shell, identified the species from a reference book and lodged the egg carefully in his wardrobe. Indeed, Bill eventually removed all his clothes from the drawers in his wardrobe, filled them with sawdust and used them to store his eggs.

After caring for his collection for several decades, Bill donated his eggs to the National Museum. He didn’t create records of where and when the eggs were collected, or of the species represented, so to understand the collection better, I asked ornithologist Dick Schodde to help us describe Bill’s eggs. Over a few hours, Dick, drawing on his expertise, and Bill, offering his collecting memories, identified most of the eggs in the collection.

Dick Schodde (left) and Bill Gibbs discuss which egg is which species. Photo by George Serras. National Museum of Australia

Dick Schodde (left) and Bill Gibbs discuss which egg is which species. Photo by George Serras. National Museum of Australia

The collection represents over 60 different species, including many native species like emu, eagle, falcons, kites, swan, swamp harrier, various water fowls, honey eaters, magpie, chough, geese, various parrots, willy wagtail and kookaburra. It also includes some domestic species, such as chicken, guinea fowl and canary that Bill’s family kept in the backyard, and even a bantam egg that Bill’s sister stained with tea and planted in a fake nest in the garden to trick Bill into thinking that he’d discovered a new species. For Bill, the primary interest was creating a diverse and aesthetically pleasing collection, rather than adhering to any strict zoological system.

Dick Schodde examines some of the smaller eggs. Photo by George Serras, National Museum of Australia.

Dick Schodde examines some of the smaller eggs. Photo by George Serras, National Museum of Australia.

For me, this beautiful egg collection evokes complicated responses. On the one hand, I see it as a relic of a style of birding that is now, thankfully, past. As Bill and Dick identified eggs as belonging to the Black Falcon and the Regent Honeyeater, species now both listed as endangered in Victoria, I felt grieved at the precious lives that were never lived and the possibility that these species might disappear for ever. The collection appears from this perspective as an object lesson (literally) in what we should not do.

But Bill’s collection also embodies an appreciation of non-human life that is precious and positive, though perhaps also endangered as fewer and fewer people enjoy the kind of ‘free range’ childhood that Bill experienced. As Dick and Bill talked about the collection, they expressed an intimate, detailed knowledge of bird life and the places in which those birds lived. They were able to identify species, recall what each bird looked like, where it nested, how it behaved, and their discussion evoked in each of them precise, if sometimes decades old, memories of encountering and engaging with birds. Birds were an integral part of their lives and surely this kind of knowledge about the non-human world, and the sense of connection and appreciation with which it is interwoven, is the foundation for us developing ways of living that enable people – and birds - to flourish.

Are birds an important part of your life? How do you ‘collect’ them? Please let me know your thoughts by adding a comment below.

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