Letters in the Limelight: stolen birds’ eggs and ‘the curse of ornithology’

Cataloguing the correspondence of zoologist/animal breeder James Cossar Ewart (1851-1933), I have been intrigued by the various ‘life stories’ which emerge from the letters. Periodically I will be including some highlights in a series of posts entitled ‘letters in the limelight’ .

Coll. Zetland eggsAs the Easter weekend approaches, we have eggs on the mind (albeit mostly of the chocolate variety) so this week’s ‘Letters in the Limelight’ follows this theme (eggs that is, not chocolate). A letter sent to James Cossar Ewart on 8th September 1904 from J. Kirkland Galloway, Procurator-Fiscal of Zetland (Shetland), concerns the prosecution taking place in Shetland under the Wild Birds Protection Act. Kirkland-Galloway describes the taking of two eggs of the Great Skua and one egg of the Sea Eagle and writes that he has been instructed to send the eggs to Ewart ‘to dispose of as you may best in the interest of science’.  The ornithologist William Eagle Clarke wrote earlier to Ewart (28th July 1904) to suggest that the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art, where he worked, might be the best place for the eggs. He angrily comments that egg-lifting ‘is a senseless business and is the curse of ornithology.’

Historically, the effective protection of birds and their eggs was a gradual process.  The Wild Bird Protection Act (1880) was a start but it fell short in many areas: it failed, for example, to stop the collection of eggs. This was an activity which became highly organised during the Victorian era, where specimen collecting in various forms was all the rage. The 1896 Wild Birds Protection Act which Kirkland-Galloway mentions gave county councils the right to apply for orders to protect particular areas or species of birds, while an Act of 1902 allowed birds or eggs taken illegally to be confiscated. The Society for the Protection of Birds (which got its Royal Charter in 1904) was obviously a driving force in this legislation, culminating in the Protection of Birds Act of 1925. However, the legislation didn’t stop everyone:  in 1916 a vicar stole the last native White-tailed Sea Eagle eggs on Skye and the last adult bird was shot on Shetland two years later (although the species was successfully reintroduced to Scotland in 1975).

The details of the prosecution mentioned in Kirkland-Galloway’s letter are not known and neither is the ultimate fate of the eggs, but it is sobering to see a snapshot in time where the eggs of wild birds did not enjoy the same protection as they do today.

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