Mystery cracked: Only a shell of what it once was!

by Ashley Houston, Collection Dept. Intern

When I started researching the Berry Egg collection several weeks ago, I never imagined what kind of tantalizing information I would uncover. One source led me to another source, and to another, and so on. There were so many questions I had wanted to answer!

The first one that I set out to find was how Mr. Berry had made such perfect and tiny holes in the small and delicate eggs to extract its contents. And for that matter, how did he do it with just one hole? Growing up, whenever I blew eggs for Easter I would make a small hole in the top and in the bottom and blow in one hole for the contents to escape out of the other one. It not only led to two holes, but my holes were also jagged and sometimes cracked the egg. So how, then, did John Berry create such a perfect little hole? Well, after reading about the practices of Ornithologists (who study birds) and Oologists (who study bird eggs) I found that even back in the late 1880s, oologists had started perfecting their techniques for preserving bird eggs. It involved a set of very small drills and a blowpipe. To prepare an egg, one would start with a very small needle to pierce the shell. Once that was completed, the drills would be used to make the perfectly cut holes in each of the eggs. Finally, a very small pipe was used to blow air into the hole causing the contents to bubble out and around where the air was coming in. Accomplishing this task successfully meant that only one hole in each egg would need to drilled. So, of course, finally answering this question means that a little experimentation needs to be done! I fully intend to test this out on an egg from the grocery store, and invite others to try it as well! For my blowpipe, I figured I would use one of those coffee stir sticks that are essentially extremely small straws and see if I can make a hole as small as Mr. Berry’s ones.

The next questions I wanted to answer were just who exactly was John T. Berry , and why did he collect nearly 500 eggs? A trip into the Local History Archive revealed that we had a vertical file on John and his wife with newspaper articles and a transcript of an oral history from his step-daughter. Turns out, Mr. Berry was a stone worker in Stout, the town that in now buried under Horsetooth reservoir. He owned a farm right outside Spring Canyon, which was the main entrance from Fort Collins to Stout that was filled in when they made the reservoir. This information only led to more questions, however. If he was a stone worker in Stout, why did he have a collection card from the Colorado Agricultural College? More digging finally brought the answer — W.L. Burnett. Mr. Burnett wrote an article in 1915 discussing how he was in debt to Mr. Berry for helping him collect information on the local birds. Apparently, Mr. Berry’s farm was a favorite place for birds to stop and nest. At the very end of the article, after a list of birds they had found, many of which are the ones now in our collection, was the words “Colorado Agricultural College.” There it was! Mr. Berry’s connection to the college and where the note card came from. William L. Burnett had worked in the Entomology and Zoology department of the college as the Deputy State Entomologist and Museum Curator. With the help of John Berry, Burnett was able to discover and record bird species that were not yet known in Larimer County and Colorado. He reported many of his findings to the Cooper Ornithological Society, who in turn, published them in their magazine, The Condor. So as it all works out, John T. Berry wasn’t just some man who collected bird eggs as a hobby, he was also indirectly responsible for expanding the field of ornithology in Colorado. What an exciting find!

December 2009

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