by Linda Moore, Curator of Collections
In the world of museum collections, we sometimes make new and exciting discoveries without collecting anything new and exciting; this is a story of one of those times. Right now those of us working with the artifact collections at the Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center are preparing for the Museum’s future move to a new building by making inventories of all our existing collections; emptying cabinets, pulling artifacts out of storage, researching their records — trying to make sense of what we have and what it’s going to take to get it from the Museum’s old home to its new one. Mostly, we are working with artifacts that are familiar to us: we’ve featured them in exhibits, or they’ve been requested by researchers and students. But among the 35,000 or so objects in the Museum’s collection some are bound to find themselves into the darker recesses of cabinets and shelves, where no one working at the Museum today has ever seen them — until now.
While some of these hidden objects are curious, and some are baffling, we are discovering some true treasures too. Recently we pulled a wooden box none of us had ever noticed before off the back of a top shelf. It was so light that climbing off the step ladder with it I thought it must be empty. But opening its hinged lid revealed, nestled in fluffy (and slightly stinky) wool, literally hundreds of bird eggs.
Each egg had been pierced with one tiny hole to extract their contents, and many bore a number in red ink. The variety in their colors and shapes was dazzling: speckled pinks, blues, browns; vivid smooth blues and glossy greens; roundish ones no bigger than the tip of a pinkie finger, and much larger conical ones. Papers included in the box identified the collection as the work of John T. Berry, of the Colorado Agricultural College (which eventually evolved into Colorado State University). According to these records Berry collected the eggs throughout Larimer County in 1904; his daughter Lottie donated them to the Fort Collins Museum in 1959. A numbered list of bird species seemed to correlate with the numbers on the eggs. Included in these papers was one tantalizing note card which Berry filled with information about one particular set of eggs: it notes the date and weather when he gathered the eggs, the placement of the nest, the presence and behavior of the bereaved parent bird (equally troubling to my non-scientist’s heart and my contemporary conservationist’s mind), and the number of eggs in the clutch.
As a curator I could easily appreciate the immense historic value of this collection. In collecting these eggs John Berry had literally scooped up a chunk of the our local environment in 1904 and put it in a wooden “fancy peppers” box, where it had remained preserved for over a hundred years. I knew the collection must have a scientific value as well. What bird species are represented in this collection, for example, and in what numbers? Certainly some of them must have become rarer or even disappeared in the years since Berry amassed his collection. It took a short afternoon looking through the information available on the use of historic egg collections like this one for me to start to appreciate the huge scientific value of this treasure.
While debate apparently continues on whether or not egg collecting should continue today — whether or not the conservation value of the information to be gained justifies the negative impact of collecting eggs on contemporary bird numbers — there is no disagreement within the scientific community on the research value contained in historic egg collections. Much like contemporary archaeologists are increasingly turning their attentions to existing cultural collections in lieu of excavating dwindling cultural sites, many contemporary bird researchers are turning to existing bird skin and egg collections rather than gathering specimens of dwindling species. In addition to their importance for basic reference purposes, egg collections serve as valuable tools in areas such as ecology, physiology, zoogeography, and pollution studies. Historic assemblages of eggs offer researchers opportunities to study long-term changes which may have occurred in many aspects of the local environment: changes in the climate, the birds’ food base, and the presence and effects of pollutants. It was exciting to me to learn that research on museum egg collections was instrumental in establishing a conclusive link between the widespread use of the pesticide DDT and eggshell thinning in raptor species; establishing this link led to the eventual ban of DDT use in many countries, including the U.S.
It turns out that even the seeming neglect of Berry’s eggs within the Museum’s collection, their years spent at the back of a shelf in the dark, has some scientific merit. Egg collections that have been on display for long periods lose much of their research value because of damage resulting from exposure to light and dust — damage that is particularly relevant to DNA studies. Also, recent advances in sampling techniques and analysis methods used on egg specimens require smaller sample amounts, and employ less destructive means that research techniques of past decades. Should we allow a researcher to gather samples from this collection, this work will be done today with far less impact than it would have required back when the Museum first acquired the collection.
Our beautiful box of eggs clearly contains more questions than answers right now. Ashley Houston, one of the Museum’s new Collections Specialists, is still carefully going through the box, sorting, cleaning, and counting the eggs. How many will there be, of how many different kinds? We’ve contacted CSU in hopes of tracking down Professor Berry’s field notes. Will we find information that correlates with the numbers placed on the eggs in spidery handwriting? What will we discover about John Berry, his life, and his work with birds in Larimer County? What could we potentially learn about the changes that have occurred here in the 105 years since he collected these eggs? Keep in touch, and as soon as we answer any of these questions we’ll let you know.