When Iowa farmer Ralph Handsaker died in 1969, he left thousands of wild birds' eggs that he had gathered himself or obtained from oologists (egg collectors) around the world. In 2003, the author of this delightful little book went to see this remarkable collection, intact in Ralph's abandoned farmhouse, and he was inspired to tell the stories behind the eggs. First, he gives an account of how Ralph and other oologists gathered, preserved and labeled their finds, using illustrated bird cards and books to aid in identification and price lists to facilitate trading. Henderson then describes 60 of the bird species whose eggs are in Ralph's collection, from the ubiquitous house sparrow to the exotic scarlet ibis, noting especially the factors, such as chemicals, oil spills and loss of habitat, that have caused many species to decline. Henderson, who is an official with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, is devoted to the preservation of bird populations, and an important part of his book is a time line of the history of bird conservation in North America. An epilogue provides a satisfying conclusion: Ralph Handsaker's descendants have donated his egg collection to Yale's Peabody Museum. Color and b&w photos. (Oct.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Oology and Ralph's Talking Eggs: Bird Conservation Comes Out of Its Shellby Carrol L. Henderson
Before modern binoculars and cameras made it possible to observe birds closely in the wild, many people collected eggs as a way of learning about birds. Serious collectors called their avocation "oology" and kept meticulous records for each set of eggs: the bird's name, the species reference number, the quantity of eggs in the clutch, the date and location
Before modern binoculars and cameras made it possible to observe birds closely in the wild, many people collected eggs as a way of learning about birds. Serious collectors called their avocation "oology" and kept meticulous records for each set of eggs: the bird's name, the species reference number, the quantity of eggs in the clutch, the date and location where the eggs were collected, and the collector's name. These documented egg collections, which typically date from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, now provide an important baseline from which to measure changes in the numbers, distribution, and nesting patterns of many species of birds.
In Oology and Ralph's Talking Eggs, Carrol L. Henderson uses the vast egg collection of Ralph Handsaker, an Iowa farmer, as the starting point for a fascinating account of oology and its role in the origins of modern birdwatching, scientific ornithology, and bird conservation in North America. Henderson describes Handsaker's and other oologists' collecting activities, which included not only gathering bird eggs in the wild but also trading and purchasing eggs from collectors around the world. Henderson then spotlights sixty of the nearly five hundred bird species represented in the Handsaker collection, using them to tell the story of how birds such as the Snowy Egret, Greater Prairie Chicken, Atlantic Puffin, and Wood Duck have fared over the past hundred years or so since their eggs were gathered. Photos of the eggs and historical drawings and photos of the birds illustrate each species account. Henderson also links these bird histories to major milestones in bird conservation and bird protection laws in North America from 1875 to the present.
The rediscovery of a collection of some 4000 eggs, representing 467 species of birds, stored for 35 years in a boarded-up farmhouse in Iowa is the point from which this study of the obscure hobby of oology begins. The Ralph of the title is Ralph Handsaker, a farmer, taxidermist, naturalist, and egg collector, who gathered his hoard in the years between 1898 and 1963 by hunting, trading, and buying eggs, as was the custom among "eggers." This rather folksy narrative makes for an engaging account of early birding traditions and the beginnings of bird conservation in North America. Henderson (Field Guide to the Wildlife of Costa Rica), who is a wildlife program supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, argues that the "citizen science" practiced by the collectors-the protocol they followed collecting eggs, blowing out the contents, and carefully labeling them-now provides ornithologists baselines from which to measure changes in the numbers, distribution, and nesting patterns of many avian species. Brief descriptions of 60 of the species represented in the Handsaker collection take up nearly half the book; nothing new here, but the illustrations, some of which include bird trading cards (a tradition begun in the 1880s), may be fresh to some eyes. A solid choice for Iowan or Midwestern popular natural history collections and an optional one for public collections elsewhere.
Meet the Author
Carrol L. Henderson has headed the Nongame Wildlife Program of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for thirty years. He lives in Blaine, Minnesota.
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