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Collecting on the Prairie:
Early Oologists in North Dakota

Introduction to Oology


Oology, the branch of ornithology that focuses on the study of eggs, may have been as popular a pursuit in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as stamp collecting is today. Most North American ornithologists at the turn-of-the-century collected bird eggs, or had done so during some earlier stage in their career, and oology was generally accepted by persons of learning as a scientifically legitimate and respectable pursuit. However, by 1940 oology as a popular hobby had died — victim to a burgeoning conservation consciousness in this country.1

North Dakota, particularly because of its large waterfowl breeding population, was a mecca of sorts for ornithologists and oologists around the turn-of-the-century. Individuals such as A.C. Bent, Florence Merriam Bailey, Herbert K. Job, and Louis B. Bishop made frequent and scientifically productive trips to the state during which they became acquainted with and were guided and accompanied by resident oologists.2 Among the latter were Holton A. Shaw and Alfred "Alf" Hovey Eastgate, whose collecting work predated vigorous implementation of the state's bird protection laws.3 An extensive egg collection of Shaw's was donated to the State Historical Society of North Dakota in 1924. After a number of years in storage, the H.A. Shaw collection is presently being catalogued.

Shaw, as a boy of sixteen, moved to Grand Forks from Wisconsin in 1886. By 1889 he was employed as Deputy Clerk of Court in Grand Forks County. His friendship with Eastgate, who had moved to Grand Forks from New York in 1881 at the age of fourteen, dated from around 1889; field notes and data slips contained in the collection indicate that Shaw and Eastgate began collecting together as early as 1892 and continued until at least 1898.

The more elaborate of these collecting trips must have resembled expeditions. They could last for months, cover hundreds of miles, and generate their own kind of excitement. Elmer T. Judd, accompanied by Louis B. Bishop and three other east coast collectors, spent four months in 1895, during which they were "in the field every day collecting and noting the migratory and breeding species of this territory."4 Eastgate and Bishop in 1901 travelled almost 1,000 miles on a trip during which the skins of 548 birds were collected.5 Of a trip one year later, again with Bishop, Eastgate provided the following description:

Found the nest and eggs of Ruby throated hummingbird It was a climb for your life up a small poplar leaning over the road on a dead branch leaning way out about 35 or 40 feet We got in to Carpenter Lake . . . takes about 5 hours to drive 12 miles by section line so you can guess how the road winds and twists around the hills with a mud hole or creek at the foot of every hill . . . . It is my sorry work to look for a nest after driving over the prairies . . . . We have been out 20 days and have 159 skins [illegible] driving 125 miles over as bad roads as you want to use but every thing else has been in our favor — fine weather and no mosquitos to speak of have not had to use our netting one night.6

Wagon used by Bishop and Eastgate
The wagon used by Bishop and Eastgate during their 1905 trip, in the Devils Lake vicinity. The folding canoe was probably standard gear during extended collecting expeditions.

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