Oology
from the book, "Petrified Lightning"

Book: 
Petrified Lightning

Oology

The number of "ologies" seems to be endless. Over 300, from actinology through zymology, are listed in the Complete Rhyming Dictionary. A few of the more common "ologies" are geology, paleontology, anthropology, ornithology, and zoology, which mean, respectively, the study of the earth, fossils, humankind, birds, and animal life.

Oology refers to the study of eggs. Considering how fragile and inaccessible they are, eggs are not most nature lovers' first choice for collection and study. Nevertheless the study of eggs and nests has claimed, among its ardent enthusiasts, some of the United States' eminent ornithologists and conservationists, including Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt.

Collecting eggs has its hazards and mishaps. In 1889, collector Maurice Thomson discovered a rare clutch of ivory—billed woodpecker eggs. They were in a nest on the face of a cliff, about 30 feet above the ground (considered easily accessible to oologists). Thomson climbed to the level of the nest, where he stood resting and admiring his find. Just as he reached for the eggs, he felt an itch on his hip. Twisting around to scratch, he accidentally knocked the eggs out of the nest and watched in anguish as they all fell to the ground and smashed. He later remarked that all he could think of at the time was, "Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. . . . All the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Humpty Dumpty together again."

One of oology's most memorable stories is that of Major Charles Bendire, egg collector and Indian fighter. In 1872, while on patrol in central Arizona, he noticed through binoculars a zone—tailed hawk's nest high in a tree. Leaving his troops to set up camp, he rode to the tree, tethered his horse, and climbed to the nest, keeping a wary eye open for Indians and concealing himself as much as possible.

From the nest, he plucked one of the eggs. Caution escaped his mind as he marveled at this incredible addition to his growing egg collection. An Apache scout quickly spotted him and got off a snap shot with a carbine. As the bullet zipped harmlessly over the major's head, he reacted instantaneously. Shoving the egg into his mouth for safekeeping, he hurried down the tree, jumped onto his horse, and galloped wildly back to camp with several Apaches in fervent pursuit. He managed to reach the camp, where a brief, pitched battle drove off the Apaches.

Then the real problem began. As he rode headlong into camp, gasping and gagging, Bendire discovered that he couldn't spit the egg out. It seems that as he had tried to avoid biting the egg, his jaws had tensed up and swelled. He simply could not open his mouth wide enough to remove the egg. Several men, under threat of court—martial, pried open his jaws and got the egg out intact. Although they did break one of his teeth, Bendire thought it a small price to pay for a perfect, uncracked egg of a zone—tailed hawk.

Charles Bendire later became the first curator of oology at the Smithsonian Institution, where the storied egg survives to this day, along with about 130,000 others.

Another prodigious collector was Wilson C. Hanna, who collected eggs from every continent. To remove some of the hazards of getting to nests and eggs, Hanna fabricated a folding metal ladder that could be attached to a tree or a cliff in pursuit of an elusive prize specimen. His collection of over 30,000 sets of eggs was donated to the San Bernardino County Museum, although a few rare specimens have been shared with the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

One of the rarest of eggs was added to Hanna's collection at the museum by Dr. Warren D. Mateer of Redlands, California. It is an egg of the extinct elephant bird found on Madagascar. The largest and sturdiest of any egg of any species yet discovered, it holds almost two gallons of liquid. Or, in the terminology of the oologist, it would take the contents of 24,000 eggs of the vervain hummingbird of Jamaica to fill the egg of the elephant bird!