'I think that, if required on pain of death to name instantly the most perfect thing in the universe, I should risk my fate on a bird's egg'
Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1862
How are eggs of different shapes made, and why are they the shape they are? When does the shell of an egg harden? Why do some eggs contain two yolks? How are the colours and patterns of an eggshell created, and why do they vary? And which end of an egg is laid first – the blunt end or the pointy end?
These are just some of the questions A Bird's Egg answers, as the journey of a bird's egg from creation and fertilisation to its eventual hatching is examined, with current scientific knowledge placed within an historical context. Beginning with an examination of the stunning eggs of the guillemot, each of which is so variable in pattern and colour that no two are ever the same, acclaimed ornithologist Tim Birkhead then looks at the eggs of hens, cuckoos and many other birds, revealing weird and wonderful facts about these miracles of nature. Woven around and supporting these facts are extraordinary stories of the individuals who from as far back as Ancient Egypt have been fixated on the study and collection of eggs, not always to the benefit of their conservation.
Firmly grounded in science and enriched by a wealth of observation drawn from a lifetime spent studying birds,A Bird's Egg is an illuminating and engaging exploration of the science behind eggs and the history of man's obsession with them.
British ornithologist Birkhead (Bird Sense: The Wisdom of Birds) uses an inaccurate TV segment that he saw on the eggs of guillemots (the name for several species of seabird) as a reason to reinvestigate the hows and whys of guillemot eggs while explaining their popularity with enthusiasts. The eggs are "seductively beautiful large, brightly and infinitely variable in color and pattern, and... very oddly shaped." Collections of eggs are often considered incomplete without them. Birkhead also seizes the opportunity to examine birds' eggs in general. He works step-by-step "from the outside of the egg towards its genetic center," with chapters covering egg's shape, the composition of the shell, and the coloring. Spotting and shading, for instance, help camouflage in the wild, protecting them from would-be predators. Birkhead then moves onto (or into) the albumen, or egg white "absolutely remarkable, mysterious stuff role in the developing egg is vital" and the yolk, before concluding with sections on laying, incubating, and hatching. This measured approach makes the overall discussion accessible. Adhering to this framework, Birkhead manages to contain what could have become an unwieldy topic, and readers with little familiarity in guillemot eggs specifically will still find the material fascinating.