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Collecting on the Prairie:
Early Oologists in North Dakota

End of the Egg Collecting Era


By 1899 Shaw and Eastgate had largely given up collecting together. This was perhaps due to the demands of Shaw's job as clerk in the Grand Forks County Treasurer's Office, which he began in that year. Eastgate collected in North Dakota until at least 1905, presumably terminating his collecting activities with his appointment as warden, and thus protector, of wildfowl at the Stump Lake national bird reservation.13 Shaw and Eastgate may have stopped collecting in response to the increasingly vocal opposition to egg collecting led by organizations such as the Audubon Society, of which Shaw was a member, and the American Ornithologist's Union. The AOU's Committee on Bird Protection, for example, in its annual report to the Union in 1899, stated that "Egg collecting has become a fad which is encouraged and fostered by the dealers until it is one of the most potent causes of the decrease in our birds. The vast majority of egg collectors contribute nothing to the science of ornithology . . . "14

Though bird protection laws in North Dakota predated statehood and carried heavy fines, ornithologists and oologists were generally immune from arrest. Perhaps this was due to the fact that oology was typically considered a scientific pursuit, notwithstanding the excesses of many of its practitioners; perhaps it was simply because there were relatively few game protection officials in the state and their time would be better spent pursuing other violators.15 At least as early as 1891 laws existed that provided absolute protection to song birds, their nests and eggs. Most other species were protected by the institution of hunting seasons, and their nests and eggs were also provided absolute protection under law. Species exempted from these protective measures were birds of prey. Fines levied against violators of the state's bird protection laws were not insignificant: $10 for every bird illegally killed and a like amount for each nest destroyed or set of eggs wholly or partially destroyed.

It is unlikely that Eastgate and Shaw were unaware of the bird protection laws. Indeed, in 1901 Eastgate encouraged Shaw to violate the state's game laws on his behalf: "Can you get me two resident hunting licenses I want them for Mr. Carter and Bangs . . . if I can save them the $50 will feel better our county warden is no good so all I want them for is when we go west so thought maby [sic] you could get them without Ackerman asking any questions."16 No response to Eastgate's request exists in Shaw's papers.

Effects of the collecting activities of ornithologists and oologists on North Dakota avian populations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are difficult to assess. Data is simply not available to judge whether the decline, for instance, of once common species in the state, such as the long-billed curlew and Ferruginous rough-legged hawk, is primarily attributable to loss of nesting habitat due to expansion of settlement and agriculture or to the fact that their eggs were highly prized by oologists and their skins by ornithologists. It is unlikely that such questions can ever be satisfactorily answered.

By the end of World War II egg collecting was in general disrepute. As pointed out by the curator of the Western Foundation for Vertebrate Zoology, "the excesses of some egg collectors and especially those of the commercial dealers in natural history specimens were viewed with increasing hostility by a new generation of American nature enthusiasts armed with binoculars and a conservation conscience . . . As a result of the unfavorable image — minimum publication and maximum exploitation — acquired by oologists during the first part of the century, stock in egg collections hit rock bottom between World War II and the early 1960s." Ironically, however, those same collections provided the baseline data used in the mid-1960s to establish the effects of DDT on eggshell thinning and its relationship to the catastrophic decline of many wildfowl populations. Today, the potential value of early egg collections for answering questions in biological science is recognized.17

When Alf Eastgate, by then North Dakota State Deputy Game and Fish Commissioner, donated Shaw's egg collection to the State Historical Society of North Dakota in the summer of 1924 it was probably without thought of any possible scientific value it might represent. He had inherited it when Shaw, his friend of many years, died in 1915. The H.A. Shaw Oological collection contains in excess of 200 sets of eggs representing more than 200 species. Several sets include their nests. Also included are data slips, and several bird skins. Enhancing this collection of objects are Shaw's papers, which were donated to the Society with the egg collection. Housed in the Society's manuscript collection, the correspondence is primarily with egg collectors throughout the United States, some of whose collections far outnumbered Shaw's.18

Collection of American rough-legged hawk eggs
American rough-legged hawk eggs collected by Shaw in 1899. The Shaw collection is currently being cataloged at the State Historical Society.

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