Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Monday, September 01, 2008


Which came first, the chicken or the egg? It's a famous conundrum, but a bogus one; the mutation that created the genus Gallus induced a chicken to hatch from an egg laid by a bird not quite of that taxon. Of course, it was the egg that came first.An understanding of eggs is prerequisite to a true comprehension of the birds they deliver. Much of our modern knowledge of bird eggs, and the diverse nests that harbor them, is based on the work of egg-collectors (oologists) from a century or more ago. At the height of its popularity, commercial and otherwise irresponsible egg collecting tarnished oology's image, but its scientific value persists and cannot be underestimated. A staggering database survives in the form of well-tended egg collections, including those of the British Museum, the Smithsonian and others. Less well-known is the biggest collection of them all, that of the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, founded in 1956 by Ed Harrison, with over 190,000 sets and a million individual eggs, as well as 18,000 nests and 54,000 study skins.Harvard University Press has just produced a beautiful new book celebrating this collection. Egg & Nest is first and foremost a picture book, featuring spectacular photographs by the gifted Rosamond Purcell, whose collaborations with Stephen Jay Gould and her own books, including Dice, Bookworm and Owls Head, are well-known. Over 175 color photographs of the WFVZ collection are featured, each one an aesthetic and zoological pleasure. Many of the images simply glorify the obvious beauty of their subjects: the deep glossy greens of tinamou (family Tinamidae) eggs, the marbled copper patina of Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) eggs, the dainty hieroglyphics gracing Icterid (family Icteridae) eggs, and the 2-dimensional calcium carbonate filligree shrouding the eggs of the Guira Cuckoo (Guira guira). Others aim to inform us: desiccated maggots still clinging to the collapsed hull of a Brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) egg, a victim of organochlorine pesticides; a series of deformed chicken (Gallus domesticus) eggs, some resembling pallid gourds, one of them double-shelled—a window bored into the outer shell reveals its hidden twin. Some of the plates thrill us with their rarity: eggs and study skins of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers (Campephilus principalis), Passenger Pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius), and Carolina Parakeets (Conuropsis carolinensis) stand beside centuries-old Elephant Bird (Aepyornis sp.) eggs and a mounted Heath Hen (Tympanuchus cupida cupida). Others charm us with their novelty, like a number of wren (family Troglodytidae) and hummingbird (family Trochilidae) nests built in and upon chunks of human hardware. Each plate is captioned with collection data, and, in most cases, with background on the subject's natural history.

The plate section is contained within bookends: the first one containing a general introduction by biologist Bernd Heinrich and an introduction to the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology written by Linnea S. Hall, its executive director, and René Corado, its collections manager. This section includes a history of the collection and its founder, and of the practice of oology. The final bookend was penned by the photographer, and includes poetic reflections on her experience photographing the collection. Throughout, the text is well-written, with the layperson in mind, but containing enough good information to satisfy the expert.

Hardcover 232 pages ISBN-13: 978-0674031722 Available October 15.


Blogger Steve Bodio said...

Sounds like a must- get.
I have been reading another book based on oology: Oology andRalph's Talking Eggs, by Carroll Henderson. While not as spectacular as this one looks (I have two other Purcell books) it is a good account of the continuing scientific value of old egg collections.

9:44 AM  
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8:31 PM  

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