Fragile Beginnings: Bird Egg Collection

Egg-collecting was a mania in Victorian England, and collectors such as Lord Rothschild collected 11,750 egg-sets in his curiosity collection. Naturally, collectors in America followed suit, and egg shells became a staple in museum cabinets. The former Wesleyan Museum in Judd Hall housed a large bird egg collection, most of which were deaccessioned and sent to the Smithsonian Institution when the museum was closed in 1957. Most, but not all.


Fresh out of storage, some of our egg specimens were broken and all were covered in dust. The specimens were separated from their labels, and the boxes containing sawdust were fraying and collapsing with even slight motion. Note the stack of broken egg shell pieces near the center of the photo.

Since 2017, the Museum has been upgrading its storage methods to a more controlled, secure and space-efficient system for the first time in over 60 years. Many of our deteriorating drawers and teetering cabinets are being decommissioned, with more specimens fitted into the modern storage cabinets. Within one of these decaying storage cabinets that mostly contained mollusks, we discovered a tray of dust-laden bird eggs, some broken, some loosely boxed, some buried in old newspapers and sawdust.


A large number of cotton buds dipped in a mild detergent were used to clean the fragile egg shells – a job which took several hours to complete.
One of the specimens was unfortunately shattered into many pieces. Given that this was an irreplaceable specimen collected over a hundred years ago, we did our utmost to preserve and conserve it. We took care to slowly match the delicate pieces together, and repaired the specimen with Paraloid B-72 resin. It was slow, tedious work. Eyes start watering about an hour into the job, but four hours later, the entire egg was back into one piece again. If only Humpty Dumpty had been sent to us. 


Piecing the shattered egg together was no easy task, and to do so without allowing the cracks to show too much was even more challenging. But then again, how many can say they have put a broken egg together again?
The cleaning process was not easier than the repair-job: we used museum grade applicators a.k.a. Q-tips to carefully treat the delicate egg shells to remove the thick layer of grime and dust collected in over 60 years. Care was taken to not over-saturate the shells with the cleaning solution of mild detergent, so as not to weaken it. After cleaning, the egg shells were lovingly cradled within appropriately-sized archival museum boxes. We also stored the old newspapers and sawdust in sealed jars for their historical interest and value.


Our museum bird specialists conferring on the most suitable degree to which dirt should be removed. Too little cleaning, and the specimens look miserable; too much cleaning, and the natural organic patina on the eggs may be removed. Left: Camille Britton ’21, Right: Alex Dibrindisi ’19.
An important part of the value of collections is their history and  potential to contribute to scientific knowledge. Data including – but not limited to- locality and time of collection help researchers determine ecologically significant changes in populations, and/or reassign taxonomic affiliations. The bird eggs were found mostly without labels, but we hope to reconcile them with their accession records by matching the catalogue numbers etched onto them with our record books.  Any natural history specimen without a label is still a pretty curiosity upon which to gaze.
The eggs reconciled with the corresponding surviving labels, and placed in archival museum boxes. The jars now store the packing materials – sawdust and newspaper – which once cushioned the eggs, and  may yield clues on the provenance and history of the specimens, with some detective work.
We traced a significant portion of the specimens to the collection of Charles H. Neff, a local (Portland CT) collector active in the late 1800s and earliest 1900s.  He was a person of diverse interests, as reflected in his collections of taxidermy birds, eggs, minerals and anthropological specimens. The Special Collections and Archives in Olin Library holds a volume of his field notes, in which Neff, in fine penmanship, detailed his bird-watching field trips, often including local weather observations. Notes such as these may provide crucial information for researchers hoping to trace the distribution of species and migration patterns over time, and potential effects of climate change on species distributions. He donated a vast number of specimens to Wesleyan, alongside carefully curated labels and accession records.
A common question is: how were such fragile objects preserved? The answer is rather straightforward. The eggs were typically taken directly from the nest, to the great dismay of the parent birds. They were then drilled or cut open, shaken to break up the yolk, and emptied. The insides then were washed and dried. Some preparations called for the consolidation of these fragile pieces by coating the insides with glue or some other consolidant. You can make a weekend project out of this using chicken eggs. Steer clear of wild clutches of eggs, since wild species should be left in peace and you may run afoul of local legislation.
An antique lithograph showing the diversity of egg morphology amongst European songbirds and seafaring birds. Bird eggs are like human fingerprints – no two are alike. Eggs of European Birds in Brockhaus’ Konversations-Lexikon. 1897. F. A. Brockhaus Publication.
The mass collection of eggs led to decline in many species of birds during the Victorian era, when egg-collecting was a commercially lucrative enterprise. We no longer collect eggs to add to our collections out of ethical considerations, but we will continue to cherish the history and beauty of the bird eggs remaining in our collections.