One of the books I have borrowed from my friend Carl Jones is “The Golden Eagle” by J Whitaker. It is a compendium of records, diaries and articles from several generations of egg collectors, one of whom was the author’s father. It makes extraordinary reading. You can’t help admiring these men (and they were, of course, all men) for their stamina and determination. It makes us modern bird-watchers look like wimps. Here is a typical passage from 1849 by “JW”:
“We reached the crag after a walk of eight or nine miles from the village. ….arrived at the shepherd’s house, he agreed to come with us, and his son was to show us the nest….(The plan was to shoot the bird and take the eggs.)
“Having reached the top in about half an hour, I tied myself to the thick rope and proceeded, gun in hand, over a ledge to an undercliff…..After a little difficulty (for there was no depth of soil) we fixed the big stake firmly above a very steep slope……Having spliced the rope to the stake upon which I was to sit, and tied myself in, …I proceeded over the edge, which , to my horror, I found almost as sharp as a knife.
“No sooner was I over the rock… than I saw the nest with two eggs, beautiful, and very different from each other. I could just reach the ledge with my fingers and unshod toes, and so, having cried ‘Stop’ I hung, with the rope heaving me backwards towards the abyss…
“On looking at the eggs in the nest I at once saw a hole in one, as if the old bird had dug her claw into in in her hurry, but on further examination I found that it had a young one in it just hatching…..I reached the eggs and put them in the box with tow, which I had lashed under my right arm..”
Seventy years later, little had changed. Here is a passage from the diaries of the author’s father:
1st April 1920
“When I got over the cliff edge I found then nest built in a deep angle with the rock slightly overhanging. ….I had to pull myself in by getting hold of the edge of the nest and it was so large that even when I got my knees on the edge of it I could only just reach the eggs which laY about 6” apart, in the centre.
“They were fine, well-marked eggs and when I blew them I found they were practically fresh…”
It seemed that, in the 1940s, ‘fake news’ was rife, and the Daily Mail was accused of propagating ‘protectionist’ untruths. This is from an editorial in the oological magazine “Birdland”:
“It is a pity our great National newspapers, which have in the past rendered such splendid service to our country, do not endeavour to be more accurate when dealing with matters outside the scope of the average reporter……
“It is because of these ridiculous and inaccurate statements which have been appearing in our press for many years that we, as a nation, are extremely ignorant of the birdlife of our country and the majority have an entirely biased opinion of oologists or egg collectors.”
One of the letters the editor received urges his readers:
“So, readers of ‘Birdland’ ….let us join battle with anyone who attempts to bring discredit on us, be he Editor, Journalist or Protectionist. I enclose copies of correspondence which I have recently had with the Editor of the News Chronicle which proves my previous point and shows that he at least is a stout fellow. No protectionist propaganda has appeared in his paper since my letter was written.”
In some ways these men are right. As a general rule populations of wild birds are not threatened by the loss of a few eggs as long as they have time to lay again. Natural mortality rates for fledglings can be staggeringly high. Only 10-20% of blue tits, for example, reach their second year. When I was at school in the early fifties, birds-nesting was a perfectly normal hobby for a country boy. The big problem with egg collectors, and the main reason they are so demonised now, is that once a species becomes threatened, the eggs attain rarity value. The greatest prize would be the last clutch of eggs laid by a species threatened with local extinction. This is where a relatively harmless hobby turns into a serious crime.
Not only do egg thieves face a prison sentence if caught, it is now an offence to disturb protected birds at their nest site. So, in my quest for good pictures of eagles, I must face not only long and arduous hikes carrying heavy camera gear, but the absolute imperative of not distressing the birds.
How I intend to do this will be the subject of later posts.