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1879 cover of the magazine Oologist
Coverpage of June 1879 issue of Oologist (Utica, NY)

Oh, Oology!

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Here are two words to add to your lexicon: caliology and oology. Caliology is the study of bird nests- yes, there is a science for this! Birds are amazing architects and can build all sorts of nests depending on species and geography. There are scrape, hole/tunnel, platform, aquatic, cup-shaped, domed/roofed, mud, hanging/woven/stitched, mound,  and many more types of nests, even, edible ones made with saliva (See Avian ArchitectureHow Birds Design, Engineer, and Build by Peter Goodfellow, 2012).  As mentioned in the previous blog post, “There Will Be Eggs,” oology is the study of  eggs, namely bird eggs (and may also include the study of nests). During the Victorian era British, Europeans and Americans were obsessed with oology and caliology.  Naturalists and bird hobbyists enthusiastically and proudly collected bird eggs and nests for display in private collections and museums. All things considered, this pastime had scientific merit, although sadly, many also thought of it as a mere recreational activity or a lucrative business.

illustrated plate of beautiful color and patterned bird eggs
Plate IX from Bendire’s Life Histories of North American, 1892 (Fig. 1, 2, 3- Ferrugionous rough-legged hawk; Fig. 3 & 5- goldend eagle; Fig. 6,8,& 9- Gyrfalcon, Fig. 7 Bald Eagle)

The second Secretary of the Smithsonian, Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823-1887), invited the budding 19th century American oologist/ caliologist to collect bird eggs and nests for the Museum’s collection:

The Smithsonian Institution is desirous of collecting as full a series as possible of the nests and eggs of birds of North America…it respectfully invites donations from all parts of the country of as many kinds of nests and eggs as can be obtained. From Instructions in reference to collecting nests and eggs of North American birds, Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, v.2 (1862), no. 9. 22 p.

Baird was not alone is his ‘all hands on deck’ approach. A couple of decades later, Captain Charles Emil Bendire (1836-1897), a distinguished oologist; honorary curator for the Smithsonian’s Department of Oology; and author of the classic Life histories of North American Birds (1892, 1895), continued Baird’s efforts with another ‘call to action’ with “A list of birds the eggs of which are wanted to complete the series in the National museum, with instructions for collecting eggs, Proceedings of the United States National Museum, v.7 (1884): 613-616 . Bendire certainly practiced what he preached and donated his incredible collection of 8,000 egg sets to the Smithsonian.

The Library of Congress has a wealth of information that documents 19th century oology-mania.  In 1941, the Library acquired the papers of Charles Emil Bendire, which provide an insider’s look at the scientific endeavors of a noted oologist. The 19th century pastime of collecting eggs also ‘hatched’ an assortment of publications dedicated to the hobbyist and amateur oologist. The Library has a good run of specialized serials such as Oölogist (Utica, NY, 1875-1881; continued as the Ornithologist and the oölogist Pawtucket, RI, 1882-1893), the Young oölogist (Gaines, NY, 1884-1885; continued as Oölogist, Albion, NY, 1886—1941), the Oologists exchange (Austin, IL, Feb. 1888-Feb. 1890), the Nidologist (Alameda, CA, 1893-1895; New York City, 1895-1897), Hawkeye ornithologist and oologist (Cresco, IA, 1888-1889),  Journal of the Museum of Comparative Oology (Santa Barbara, CA, 1919-1922) and many more short-run oology titles. These periodicals contained stories from ‘in the field’, offered tips, and advertised tools of the trade. Regrettably, there were also advertisements selling eggs.

Advertisement selling "American and Foreign" bird eggs published in an 1879 issue of Oologist
Advertisement from the Summer 1879 issue of Oologist (Utica, NY)

As one can imagine there is a dark side of egg collection that is motivated by monetary rewards rather than scientific enlightenment. Bendire was aware of the mass market of bird eggs and its detrimental affect on bird populations. He writes in the 1891 “Directions for collecting, preparing, and preserving birds’ eggs and nests” (Bulletin 39, United States National Museum):

Unless the would-be collector intends to make an especial study of oology and has a higher aim than the mere desire to take and accumulate as a large number of specimens as possible regardless of their proper identification, he had better not begin at all, but leave the nests and eggs of our birds alone and undisturbed. They already have too many enemies to contend with, without adding the average egg collector to the number (p.3)

Oliver Davie, author of the popular Nests and eggs of North American birds (3rd ed. 1889; previous title Egg check list of North American birds, 1885) also addressed the need to protect bird life and objected to the business of oology.

Surely none of the readers of the foregoing pages are engaged in the wholesale collecting of eggs for purely mercenary purposes, sacrificing and depopulating our birds, and screening their fiendish acts under the gauzy lace of science (p.455)

Illustrated plate of a burrowing owls and nesting burrow
Plate VII from Oliver Davie’s Nests and Eggs of North American Birds (1889)

Today, the collection of bird nests and eggs is significantly regulated and in many cases illegal. In the U.S. there are laws and treaties, such the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and Endangered Species Act, prohibiting these actions for recreation or market. Unfortunately, unscrupulous egg collectors still exist across the globe to the aversion of governmental wildlife agencies and conservation groups.

Thankfully, many of the vintage egg collections have found their way into museums or other types of research institutions (e.g., Smithsonian Natural History Museum, Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, and the Natural History Museum at Tring) where they can be used by scientists. These collections help us better understand bird taxonomy and evolution, as well as the affects of environmental pollution and climate change to current bird populations. Even archaeologists find these specimens helpful when identifying the eggshells discovered in digs.

Although the pastime of oology is no longer viable, there are countless opportunities for the 21st century bird hobbyist and enthusiast to study birds and in turn help scientists. Cornell’s Ornithology Department offers a variety of bird citizen science programs and the National Audubon Society has nature centers, local chapters, and citizen science projects  waiting for you to discover.


Comments (2)

  1. That is very interesting.

  2. Hi, Jennifer — This is a very well written, accurate, and concise history of “oology” in America, and I commend you for a job well done. It touches nicely on the necessity for collecting eggs, e.g., documenting DDT-induced eggshell thinning, and the perils of the practice getting out of hand through commercialization.

    I am just finishing a book on the history of egg collecting in North America, a task that I have dabbled at for several decades. In the process, I have learned a great deal about people and the history of the U.S. Oology was a fascinating chapter in our cultural shift from an exploitive mindset toward nature to one that celebrates nature and protects natural ecosystems.

    Lloyd Kiff

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