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Paul Sparkes: Forty thousand wild eggs

The Common Guillemot. Peters and Burleigh wrote, “They lay their eggs in remote crevices of the rocks or between large boulders or broken rocks. Frequently it is possible to see the two eggs far back in a dim recess which cannot be reached. Probably it is well that their eggs are so hidden, for eggers can hardly secure them in such places.” (Illustration: Bruton).
The Common Guillemot. Peters and Burleigh wrote, “They lay their eggs in remote crevices of the rocks or between large boulders or broken rocks. Frequently it is possible to see the two eggs far back in a dim recess which cannot be reached. Probably it is well that their eggs are so hidden, for eggers can hardly secure them in such places.” (Illustration: Bruton).

In the Spring of 1833, at American Harbour in the Belle Isle Straits, it was reported that a party of men from Halifax had hunted and collected something like 40,000 wild birds’ eggs. Beating what must have been a hasty return home, the “eggers” were said to have sold off their haul for 25 cents a dozen, bringing in something more than $800. In the 1830s, $800 would have had the buying power of what would be more than $20,168 today.

The great egging incident is recorded in the journal of John James Audubon (1785 – 1851) who visited the Straits region in the summer of 1883. As an ornithologist, naturalist and painter, Audubon was, of course, shocked almost beyond words. His diary insert shows he considered the men to have had not one spark of decency, not one vestige of conscience, not one redeeming feature.

Audubon recorded that the nest raid of about 40,000 eggs was done over a period of about two months. But this would not have been an isolated concern for a conservationist at the time. It was a day and age when nature was raped repeatedly, whether it was fish, game animals or birds, or even the trees of the forest. Audubon also recorded:

“Last year upwards of twenty sail were engaged in egging, so some idea may be formed of the birds that are destroyed in this rascally way. The eggers destroy all the eggs that are sat upon to force the birds to lay again, and by robbing them regularly, the birds lay till nature is exhausted and few young are raised.” And Audubon sounded a warning,

“In less than half a century these wonderful nurseries will be entirely destroyed unless some kind government will interfere to stop the shameful destruction.”

As Audubon published parts of what he witnessed on the Labrador coast, anyone today descended from an egging great-great grandparent would be thankful names were not included! To believe all of Audubon’s words would be to blacklist your ancestors forever!

He describes, for example, a small open boat with eight men aboard, heading out in search of eggs: “There rides the filthy thing! One of them sculls the skiff towards an island, for a century past, the breeding place of myriads of guillemots ... at the approach of the vile thieves clouds of birds arise from the rock and fill the air around, wheeling and screaming over their enemies. Yet thousands remain in an erect posture, each covering its single egg, the hope of both parents. The reports of several muskets loaded with heavy shot are now heard, while several dead and wounded birds fall heavily on the rock or into the water ... the assassins walk forward exultingly with their shouts mingling oaths and execrations.

The renowned ornithologist wasn’t finished with the eggers yet.

“Look at them. See how they crush the chick within its shell, how they trample on every egg in their way with their huge and clumsy boots ... they strip the birds by a single jerk of their feathery apparel while the flesh is yet warm and throw them on some coals where, in a short time, they are broiled. The rum is produced when the guillemots are fit for eating” ...

Audubon’s words are recorded in Dr. Charles W. Townsend’s book, “Along  the Labrador Coast,” 1906. Four years later when Dr. Wilfred Grenfell was editing his book “Labrador, the country and the people”, he included an essay from Dr. Townsend. In part, Townsend added then that Eskimos, Indians and polar bears in earlier times took what birds (and, presumably, eggs) they needed:

“This natural pruning as it might be called, had little or no influence on the numbers of the birds. White men, however, with their insatiable greed and their more systematic methods, have created havoc in the ranks of these interesting water-fowl.”

Jim and Elizabeth Goudie (she wrote “Woman of Labrador”, 1973) lived off the land in Labrador, and therefore would likely have been forgiven by Audubon, Townsend and others when they killed birds. For, of course it was the wholesale and largely useless slaughter that was objected to, not the shooting and egg-collecting for survival. Writing of the period 1914-16 Mrs. Goudie says “there were no laws on killing wild birds or catching fish, so we would kill enough to eat every day and also preserve some in salt for the summer months. My father was a good hunter. He used to kill about 180 birds in the month of May.” Those lasted his family through the summer.

James Audubon’s writing of nearly 200 years ago and the style of reportage at the time was greatly different from today. He seems concerned that the destruction of birds alone may not wring from his readers the kind of sympathy he needs for (perhaps) some concerted legal action. So he makes the whole scenario as appalling as possible: filthy men, brutish habits, half-drunken men eating greasy seabirds then sleeping off their liquor. Rather like politics back then: it was not enough to make an argument for a better policy for the public good, you had to disparage your opposition, too — “besmirch” them!

Things did change, of course. We lost some birds (the auk was an easy kill), but we also gained a conscience. In the early 1950s Harold Peters and Thomas Burleigh called for the planting of bonasa and falcipennis here on the island. Short years later, we took them up on that suggestion. In 1956 ruffed grouse were introduced and in the early 1960s, we welcomed immigrant spruce grouse.

 

Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email psparkes@thetelegram.com.

 

 

 

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