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Drawn from Nature: Art, Science, and the Study of Birds

The Collectors

Oölogists & Nidologists

Collecting bird skins and especially eggs became a popular hobby in the late-19th century. Comprised mostly of men and boys, these collectors amassed, bought, sold, and traded eggs like other collectibles. Egg collectors were commonly referred to as oölogists, a person who studies eggs. Those who had a broader interest that included nests were known as nidologists.

Magazines for egg collectors emerged in the late-19th century as the hobby gained popularity. Titles included The Oölogist, Ornithologist and the Oölogist, and the Young Oölogist. Henry Reed Taylor, a prominent egg collector from Alameda, California, published The Nidiologist from 1893 to 1897 to promote the hobby. The Nidologist. February 1897, Alameda, Cal. View Source.

Buying and Selling

The hobby grew in popularity, in large part, because it was easy to do. It took little skill to find nests and collect the eggs of the most common birds. The collections were often displayed at home in specially designed cases. Sophisticated collections included nests and the corresponding stuffed parents. The hobby also became a lucrative business for some collectors who sold their specimens to museums and wealthy patrons. Adventurous individuals could make a nice profit if they were willing to climb tall trees or scale cliffs to collect eggs from rare or hard-to-get species. But by the early-20th century, a change in public opinion and recent federal wildlife protection laws put an end to the collecting hobby.

an advertisement of birds eggs for sale from Edward McIlhenney, an amateur ornithologist in the Nidologist

People amassed their egg collections through fieldwork, as well as through selling and trading between other oölogists. This is an advertisement of birds eggs for sale from Edward McIlhenney, an amateur ornithologist and collector from Louisiana, in the February 1897 issue of The Nidologist. View Source.

Egg Collecting

Egg collecting often blurred the line between the amateur and professional. Museums depended on amateurs for specimens, and many professional ornithologists had discovered an interest in birds at a young age by collecting eggs. Charles Bendire—a career army officer and founding member of the American Ornithologists’ Union— straddled both worlds. He amassed a private collection of 8,000 eggs during his military travels and later donated his collection to the Smithsonian Institution.

A plate of 14 species of grouse, ptarmigan, and dove eggs illustrated by John Ridgway

A plate of 14 species of grouse, ptarmigan, and dove eggs illustrated by John Ridgway in: Bendire, Charles. Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge. Vol. 28. Life Histories of North American Birds with Special Reference to Their Breeding Habits and Eggs. Washington, D.C: Smithsonian Institution, 1892. View Source.