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Early Oologists

8/20/2004:

By the 1890s, Stump Lake in northeast North Dakota was a Mecca for waterfowl hunters, and a magnificent 3-story hotel called the Wamduska House provided room and board to hunters from as far away as New York City. Oologists, too, found the area ripe for the picking. What’s an oologist, you ask? That’s a person who collects birds’ eggs – or used to, anyway.

One collector, Alf Eastgate, got married in 1893 and later wrote, “As money was not as plentiful as hard work, my wife said to wait until spring and she would go with me on a collecting trip.” The following year, the couple arrived at Stump Lake, and over the next 2_ months, they collected both eggs and bird skins. When Eastgate was injured in an accident in mid-June, the couple decided to stay and settled on the south end of Stump Lake.

A frequent visitor at the Eastgate farm was a Grand Forks county clerk and fellow collector, Holton Shaw. The two men had been collecting bird eggs together since 1892. In fact, in 1895, they and five East Coast collectors spent four months on an oology expedition, during which (they later said) they were “in the field every day collecting and noting the migratory and breeding species of this territory.”

During one of his expeditions, Eastgate wrote: “Found the nest and eggs of Ruby throated hummingbird It was a climb for your life up a small poplar leaning over the road on a dead branch leaning way out about 35 or 40 feet We got in to Carpenter Lake. . . takes about 5 hours to drive 12 miles by section line so you can guess how the road winds and twists around the hills with a mud hole or creek at the foot of every hill. . . It is my sorry work to look for a nest after driving over the prairies. . . We have been out 20 days and have 159 skins...driving 125 miles over as bad roads as you want to use but every thing else has been in our favor – fine weather and no mosquitos to speak of have not had to use our netting one night.”

The oologists provided documentation about each set of eggs found, including the collector’s name, date, weather conditions and location of where the eggs were found. In the early years, oologists would often kill and skin parent birds for proving the authenticity of the eggs. Interestingly, it was a matter of “scientific honor” to take every egg in the nest.

During his hunts with Eastgate, Shaw collected eggs not just for himself but also for selling and trading with other oologists. For example, on one day in June 1893, he found 29 common tern’s nests for a total of 85 eggs; 16 sets were to fill orders from other collectors, and 11 sets were for a “private collection” – perhaps his own.

Although the area had an abundance of birds, by 1912 Stump Lake was the Nation’s last known breeding ground for the white-winged scoter, and needless to say, oologists got good returns on scoter eggs. Whether collectors were part of the problem or not, the bird soon disappeared from North Dakota. Bird enthusiasts noticed other species start to dwindle, as well.

Teddy Roosevelt recognized Stump Lake’s importance as a migratory breeding ground, and in 1905, he set aside five islands in Stump Lake – totaling 28 acres – as a national bird reserve. It was the third such reserve in the country. Eastgate, who was still living at Stump Lake, became the reserve’s first warden, and shortly after, both he and Shaw stopped the practice of collecting eggs. As opposition to egg hunting grew, oologists started using cameras to document their research instead of robbing nests. It’s pretty safe to say that our feathered friends have appreciated the change.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm