Not so very long ago, collecting the eggs of birds was one of the most common activities in the life of budding young naturalists. However, with the passage of such foundational conservation legislation as the Lacey and Migratory Bird Treaty Acts – to say nothing of the increasing awareness among many naturalists themselves that all their collecting of eggs may be harming bird populations – the practice of amateur oölogy (the study of eggs) came to an abrupt halt in the early twentieth century.
From a conservation perspective, this cessation of egg collecting is unquestionably a good thing, but it has produced one unfortunate side-effect: a widespread unfamiliarity with bird eggs among both bird watchers and general naturalists.
Fortunately, Mark E. Hauber’s The Book of Eggs: A Life-Size Guide to the Eggs of Six Hundred of the World’s Bird Species contains much that can rectify unfamiliarity with bird eggs. Dr. Hauber, a professor in the Animal Behavior and Conservation Program at Hunter College in New York, has collected images of the eggs of 600 of the world’s bird species and presents them – following a brief but wholly sufficient introduction to the basic biology, of bird eggs – in life size and full color, with supporting illustrations and text, in a manner that is both fascinating and informative.
All of the eggs depicted are part of the collections held by either the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, or the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology in Camarillo, California. Many of the eggs were, somewhat ironically, originally collected in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by amateur naturalists. Presented one species to a page, each egg is shown both in life size and, if details warrant (as they often do), in magnification so that the egg’s texture, pattern, and other pertinent features might be more easily appreciated by the reader.
A collection of nothing but photographs of eggs would, regardless of how colorful or curiously patterned they are, be rather boring, and so each species entry also contains such useful information as breeding range, clutch size, incubation period, nest type, and even – for those interested in delving further into the subject – the museum’s collection reference number for the specific egg depicted. Also accompanying each egg are two exceptionally well-written paragraphs, which explain some of the more interesting things about the egg. For example, how the seemingly random dark blotches on the otherwise light greenish-blue eggs of common murres are thought to be unique to each egg, thus helping the parents identify their eggs among all those they might encounter in the tightly packed communal nesting areas where these birds breed.
As might be expected, The Book of Eggs is not a book to be read straight through. Once the introductory sections have been read, it is better to peruse the book, stopping as the images catch one’s attention, reading about that species, then continuing on to the next in the same manner. This is best done repeatedly, over a span of weeks, after which period the wonders of these bird eggs will be revealed, without, of course, any risk to the bird populations themselves.
John E. Riutta