Friday mystery object #354 answer

Last week I gave you this Eastery object to have a go at identifying:


It proved a bit of a tricky one, with most people recognising it as the nest and eggs of a passerine bird, but Bernard was absolutely spot-on with an identification of Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio Linnaeus, 1758 – kudos to Bernard!


Female Red-backed Shrike. Pierre Dalous, 2012

Generally, being able to identify eggs and nests has become a less commonplace skill in Europe over the last few decades. This is partly because people with an interest in nature tend to steer clear of nests in order to avoid disturbing breeding birds.

In the first half of the 20th Century collecting wild bird eggs was a popular hobby in many parts of Europe, so people would learn the skills needed to identify eggs from different species. However, these sorts of collections negatively impacted on bird populations and helped motivate development of legislation protecting birds and their nests.

Red-backed Shrikes used to regularly visit and breed in the UK, but they largely ceased nesting in Britain around 30 years ago and they are very rare visitors to Ireland. Recently however, there have been records of some successful breeding pairs in the South West of Britain, so they may be making a shift back into Britain.

Of course, if they do start breeding in the UK they’ll need suitable habitats, which mostly means the thorny scrub in wet areas that they prefer (see Svendsen et al, 2015). This is assuming that these sites avoid the current trend of being netted by developers to prevent birds from nesting.

This cynical practice that has recently become quite widespread in the UK is a used as a mechanism to deter birds from nesting in particular suitable sites, which can delay development thanks to the legal protection on nesting birds that was introduced to help protect bird populations (there’s an interesting article on the topic in the Guardian). By limiting access to nesting sites the developers may avoid breaking the letter of the law, but with suitable habitats in decline, depriving birds of nesting sites does seem to be breaking the spirit in which the laws were made. Not cool.

Dinosaur Eggshibition!

It’s been a while since I last wrote much on my blog, apart from the regular Friday mystery object. Mainly that’s because I’ve been busy getting to grips with a new collection at the Grant Museum of Zoology, where I am now the Curator. Just before I left my previous job at the Horniman Museum & Gardens I curated an exhibition that has a nice Eastery link (which will become apparent), that I thought might be worth writing about.

The exhibition is a touring show developed under the title Hatching The Past, which was brought to my attention by palaeontologist, science blogger and old friend Dr Dave Hone who’s a lecturer at Queen Mary University of London. I went to the Città della Scienza in Naples with some colleagues from the Horniman to take a look (which is an interesting story in its own right, since the main part of the museum had been burned down by the Mafia in 2013).

Despite the suboptimal exhibition space in Naples (thanks to the fact that the building it was meant to be displayed in was a pile of charcoal), the quality of the science, the objects in the exhibition and the vibrant and exciting artwork by the awesome palaeoartist Luis Rey made it well worth considering for the Horniman, which tries to get in a blockbuster temporary exhibition every year.

This exhibition focuses on the eggs, offspring and parental care of dinosaurs. A family focus is right up the Horniman’s street, and that’s what led to the change in the exhibition title, to bring more focus on that family element, without losing sight of the DINOSAURS!


Star of the exhibition

Of course, making an exhibition intellectually fit into a museum takes more than just changing the name, so the temporary exhibitions at the Horniman include objects from the permanent collection, with links to activities and other content. So while working out my notice from the Horniman I was feverishly selecting objects and writing text to help build that link before I left.


It has to be said that seeing members of the public engaging with your work is incredibly satisfying, so when the exhibition opened in February I was delighted to see people reading my text and really getting interested in the objects I’d picked to tell the story of parental care in living animal groups.


I was also keen to take the opportunity to help the Horniman build closer links with one of their patrons (and a living legend for pretty much every naturalist out there), Sir David Attenborough, who kindly agreed to loan the Elephant Bird egg he found when filming Zoo Quest in Madagascar. This for me is the ultimate version of an egg hunt.

Have a great Easter weekend – I hope you get all the eggs you could ask for!

Friday mystery object #37 answer

On Good Friday I provided a series of eggs in a mystery Easter egg hunt. I will list the answers at the end of this post with a reference to the people who made a correct identification, but first I want to discuss the issue of eggs.

I had reservations about putting together last Friday’s post, because eggs are a delicate subject matter – and by that I don’t mean I was concerned about possible damage to the eggs (I’m trained to deal with such things after all), I mean that the issue of eggs is ethically and legally delicate. I checked the Wildlife and Countryside Act  1981 and associated legislation to ensure that both myself and the Museum were on legally firm ground with respect to the eggs and I am now fulfilling the ethical requirement (as I perceive it) by attempting to clarify the position on collecting, keeping and trading bird eggs in England and Wales (slightly different rules apply in Scotland).

Collecting wild bird eggs is illegal. It makes no difference if the bird is a golden eagle or a wood pigeon.

Selling wild bird eggs is illegal. As one auctioneer found to his cost recently.

It is illegal to possess bird eggs unless you can prove they were obtained legally. This means that you need evidence that the eggs were collected prior to The Protection of Birds Act 1954 – and of course evidence means documentation.

Egg collecting used to be a common hobby, usually associated with young lads. Unfortunately collecting can be quite addictive and when someone of a collecting mindset wants to fill holes in their collection they will sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to do it – breaking the Law included. This means that there are still quite a few people out there who collect and deal in eggs – something that has to be taken seriously. It needs to be taken seriously because collectors tend to target those eggs that are rare – precisely the ones that are needed for rare bird populations to survive and recover.

Museums have a bit of a hard time with people offering egg collections. Often when someone passes away their family will find a shoebox of eggs in the loft that was collected when the deceased was a child. Usually, such collections were collected prior to 1954, but they lack any documentation. This means that the family is left holding an illegal egg collection that they are keen to get rid of, but which they don’t want to destroy – so they offer it to museums. Of course, museums are bound by the Law, so they too can be prosecuted for holding egg collections that cannot be proved to pre-date 1954. This means that museums will turn away egg collections that lack proper documentation and associated data – and the best course of action is probably for the families to contact DEFRA for advice (they’re very approachable and they aren’t looking for unwitting innocents to prosecute). The advice I would give is that if the collection has no documentation and associated data (like species names, place collected and all-importantly date of collection) it is probably best to dispose of the eggs. If it does have data and documentation then a museum may be willing to take it as a donation – but bear in mind that most museums are very wary of egg collections and don’t be surprised if they decline your offer.

On to the answers! Continue reading