On display at the Western Illinois Museum as the July Artifact of the Month is a bird egg collection.  The eggs on view were donated to the museum in 1985 by Dr. Jay Wobith Stein, a WIU professor who was born in 1920 and died in 2007. He came to WIU in 1967 and retired in 1987.

Housed in a shallow wooden box, divided into a grid of approximately 50 little squares, the bird eggs nestle snugly in beds of wool and straw. On the outside of the box holding the eggs is a neatly typed label stating:

“Bird eggs collected during the boyhood of the father of Professor Jay W. Stein, WIU.  Most of the eggs came from the Western Illinois region and neighboring states.  Date around 1903.  Prof. Stein’s father is a graduate of Concordia Seminary in Springfield, Ill.”

Dr. Stein’s father was Rev. Julius August Stein, born June 15, 1886, in Stendal, Pike County, Indiana, and who died April 23, 1966, in Saint Cloud, Stearns County, Minnesota.   The seminary he attended as a young man, the Concordia Seminary, was located in Springfield, Illinois and was a seminary of the Lutheran Church.   It was founded in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1846 by Wilhelm Sihler, to meet the need for pastors to German Lutheran immigrants to the United States.

During the late 19th and early 20th century, collecting wild bird eggs was a popular hobby throughout the United States. The practice of collecting bird eggs is referred to as Oology and those who practice it are called oologists. Sometimes they were informally referred to as “eggers.”  Oology is a branch of ornithology (the study of birds) that focuses on the studying of bird eggs, nests and breeding behavior. The word comes from the Greek “oion”, meaning egg.  Due to changes in bird conservation laws, collecting wild birds’ eggs is now illegal in the United States, except for specially authorized scientific research.

However, during the late 19th and early 20th century, bird egg collecting was fashionable and prevalent.  This was the era of amateur naturalists, going out and studying nature in order to understand it better. Clubs and organizations blossomed all over the country as amateurs began pursuing their interests in all sorts of specialized activities.  Both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt were ardent oologists.

Back in the times when there were no binoculars or cameras with long-range lens, one way to learn about birds closely in the wild was to collect their eggs. Collectors would go egg collecting and often take an entire clutch of eggs for their collections, believing that if they did so the birds would then lay another to replace it, which was not always the case. Eggshells are easiest to preserve when collected just after the entire clutch is laid and before incubation. Avid collectors kept detailed records noting the species of bird, the quantity of eggs in the nest, the location of the nest, and the date the eggs were taken.

Beginning in the 1880s, to preserve the eggs, oologists perfected techniques to make it possible to keep the eggs long term.  The contents of the eggs had to be removed which involved a set of very small drills and a blowpipe. To prepare an egg, one would start with a very small needle to pierce the shell. Once that was completed, drills would be used to make perfectly cut holes in each of the eggs. Finally, a very small pipe was used to blow air into the hole causing the contents to bubble out and around where the air was coming in. Accomplishing this task successfully meant that only one hole in each egg would need to drilled. The shell was then cleaned, labeled and preserved.  In many of the Stein eggs a small hole can be seen where the contents were blown out.

Besides going on field trips and collecting eggs themselves, oologists also purchased bird eggs from supply houses and traded eggs with other collectors.  The peak of egg-collection was between 1885 and the 1920s, when new collecting regulations marked its decline. In 1918, landmark federal environmental legislation called the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed. This law greatly reduced egg collecting because it protected migratory birds by forbidding the buying and selling of their feathers and eggs; these restrictions still apply today.

We can presume that Julius Stein as a young man studying at the Concordia Seminary in Springfield, Illinois, probably enjoyed his free time by collecting bird eggs out in the countryside.  We can imagine that he assembled this collection as a way to further enjoy this hobby.  Perhaps he was the one that blew out the contents of each egg, and made the box to house his small collection.

Julius Stein created his egg collection around the time he was 17 years old and kept his collection his entire adult life. At some point in time the eggs came into the possession of his son, Jay Stein.  At WIU, Stein was known as a collector, and his office was filled with many of his favorite artifacts.  Besides this bird egg collection, Stein also donated to the museum his collection of hundreds of matchbooks.  Stein’s matchbook collection was on display at the museum as the January 2012 Artifact of the Month.

Some amateur bird egg collections assembled in the late 19th and early 20th century ended up in museums and can provide important information regarding changes in bird distribution and nesting habits.

The Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology in Camarillo, California, houses approximately 225,000 sets of eggs from around the world and is the largest egg collection in the world. Other museums with sizable egg collections are:

  • The Natural History Museum (610,000 eggs), UK
  • Delaware Museum of Natural History (520,000 eggs) USA
  • National Museum of Natural History (190,000 eggs), Washington DC, USA
  • Muséum de Toulouse (150.000 eggs), Toulouse France
  • San Bernardino County Museum (41,000 clutches with 135,000 eggs) Calif. USA

Bird eggs can give a lot of information about the bird.  Birds which lay their eggs in holes in trees or in the ground almost always have white, unspotted eggs. Birds which build in trees generally have blue or greenish eggs, either spotted or unspotted, while birds that build in bushes, near the ground, are likely to lay speckled eggs.

Historical egg collections containing old bird eggs can be a source of scientific data. Eggshells are valuable indicators of environmental quality.  In the 1960s, falcon eggs from historical collections were compared with recent falcon eggs and it was demonstrated that there was a decline in the shell thickness. This research linked the use by farmers of pesticides such as DDT and the decline in the number of birds of prey. DDT affected calcium content in eggshells causing them to be so thin that the eggs could not mature and there was drastic drop in population.  This important link between the DDT and the bird’s shell thickness lead to major milestones in conservation and protection laws, such as the banning of the use of DDT. Eggs from highly exposed species such as gulls are now regularly collected to monitor pollutant levels in the Great Lakes ecosystem and to identify new contaminants before they become a threat to wildlife and humans.

This approximately 110 years old small collection of bird eggs is still an educational artifact. This bird egg collection tells the modern museum visitor the story of a mid-western son preserving a boyhood collection passed down from his father.  It also tells about the now illegal hobby of Oology, and it points out changes in bird conservation – from a time when it was acceptable to gather wild bird eggs to a time when the practice was outlawed and the collecting of wild bird eggs was prohibited.

The bird egg collection will be on display at the museum from July 2-31, 2013.

From an essay by Heather Munro.