The incident that led me to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago was the tragic death of a young bird egg collector in 1909. His name was Richardson P. Smithwick and he was from a family of amateur bird, bird egg and bird nest collectors that lived in Bertie County, N.C. late in the 19th and early in the 20th century.
Born in 1876, Richard Smithwick was only 33 years old when he died in a sand dune cave-in while searching for kingfisher eggs on a barrier island in southeastern Virginia.
The Oologist, the leading magazine for bird egg collectors in the U.S. at that time, reported “the sad ending of an active, useful life. Mr. Smithwick was an active young worker in his chosen field of science.”
News of his fatal accident made me curious about young Smithwick, but also about his enthusiasm for collecting bird eggs.
So I did a little research: I discovered, first of all, that Smithwick was indeed a very avid collector. He also collected birds (preserved by taxidermy, for which he had a talent, not live) and at least occasionally their nests, but his real passion was oology, the collecting and study of bird eggs.
In the late 19th century, a brief explosion of popular interest in oology spread across the U.S. Young people like Mr. Smithwick—nearly always boys or young men—took it up as a hobby.
For a few, among them many readers of The Oologist, collecting bird eggs became a lifelong hobby and—for an even smaller number—a field of serious scientific inquiry that helped lay the foundation for the modern field of ornithology.
The Smithwicks of Merry Hill
I also learned a little about Smithwick’s family. I found that he lived in Merry Hill, a little farming and fishing settlement in Bertie County, N.C., in the state’s far eastern lowlands. The village lay in the midst of a remote landscape marked by great blackwater creeks and bottomland swamp forests near where the Roanoke River flows into the Albemarle Sound.
Young Richard was the son of a Confederate army veteran. According to a family history sent to me by one of his nephews, Richard’s father had a hole in his chest from having been shot in Uphill, Virginia, during the war.
Richard came from a family of birders and bird egg collectors. They included his older brother, John Washington Pearce Smithwick, and one of his younger brothers, William Michael Smithwick, as well as a first cousin, Thomas A. Smithwick.
The most prominent of this bird and egg-obsessed brood of Smithwicks was Richard’s oldest brother, John Washington Pearce Smithwick. In 1890 J. W. P., then age 20, briefly published a little 3 x 4 inch journal called The Hummingbird “devoted to ornithology and oology.”
As far as I know, The Hummingbird only circulated in the wilds of Bertie County, but its existence, however short-lived, shows how early the Smithwick boys took their hobby seriously.
By the end of that decade, J. W. P. was being taken much more seriously as a naturalist. With the support of State Museum director H. H. Brimley, he compiled one of the state’s standard works on birds at that time.
In 1898, when J. W. P. Smithwick donated his collections to Brimley’s State Museum (now the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences), one newspaper called it “the largest collection of native bird eggs in the state.”
A Passion for Collecting Bird Eggs
His ill-fated younger brother was no slouch, either. When he was still in his 20s, Richard Smithwick published an article on Bertie County’s winter birds in The Oregon Naturalist.
He also wrote a string of articles on local birds for The Oologist (on martins, chickadees and hummingbirds), as well as a broader survey of local birds and their migratory and nesting habits that was published posthumously.
In addition, Richard contributed an exhaustive list of the county’s birds to his older brother’s Ornithology of North Carolina, replete with comments on migratory behavior, nest construction and feeding habits.
All show sharp observational skills, great determination and a poetic sensibility.
Above all, Richard was a prolific collector. He mainly searched out bird eggs in the forests, meadows and swamps of Bertie County, but at least occasionally, as when he had his fatal accident, he wandered further.
He kept a large collection and, advertising in The Oologist, he also sold bird eggs to collectors throughout the country.
Collecting, not profits, was his obsession. How he made a living is not clear– one source indicated his profession as “artist.”
Richard seems to have done whatever he could to support himself and his avid interest in oology. On one occasion, he even ran an ad in The Oologist in which he offered to exchange beetles for bird eggs, at a rate of 500 unnamed and unmounted beetles (obviously not his true love) for $10 worth of eggs.
His passion and curiosity for birds and their eggs was boundless: another time, he offered to trade a Smith & Wesson revolver and a taxidermy guide for “bird books.”
Largely because of his ads in The Oologist, his bird eggs traveled far. With a little research—the National Science Foundation’s VertNet is very useful in these cases—I discovered that young Smithwick’s bird eggs from Bertie County can now be found in museums across the U.S.
Looking on VertNet, I found his eggs at the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology in Los Angeles, which holds the country’s largest collection of bird eggs. I also located them at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and a host of smaller museums, ranging from the Florida Museum of Natural History to the Washington state’s Burke Museum.
The Field Museum of Natural History
I also found that the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago has sets of his eggs—and, when I discovered this, my wife and I already had plans to go to Chicago for a conference. (And to see Hamilton!)
The temptation to see Smithwick’s eggs while we were there was irresistible. So I contacted the museum’s Bird Division. To my delight, Dr. John Bates, one of the museum’s curators, very graciously invited my wife and me to stop by and look at the eggs and their “egg slips.”
Egg slips are the collector’s written descriptions of the bird eggs. They usually include the location where the eggs were found, information about the nest and any special characteristics of the eggs.
I was thrilled. Dating back to exhibits prepared for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, the Field is one of the world’s largest natural history museums, renown both for its scientific research and commitment to public education.
My wife—the real bird enthusiast in our family— and I met Dr. Bates on the museum’s first floor, next to Sue, the museum’s Tyrannosaurus Rex. He swept us up to the third floor, where the scientists, laboratories and collections in the museum’s Bird Section are located.
Dr. Bates quickly introduced us to Dr. David Willard, the retired collection manager and now a passionate volunteer. Dr. Willard had already laid out a group of the Smithwick family’s egg slips for me. They sat on a long table next to tall cabinets with drawer after drawer of preserved bird specimens.
The Merry Hill Egg Slips
The egg slips were fantastic. The museum’s records showed that the collection included 26 egg sets that Richard Smithwick and other members of his family collected between 1891 and 1899.
Richard had collected most of them, 18 in all. All the ones I looked at had come into the museum’s holdings through the estate of a Connecticut collector in 1914. Presumably he was one of the egg collectors that responded to Richard’s ads in The Oologist.
The slips described eggs commonly found in eastern North Carolina. One, for instance, was a set of Chuck-will’s-widow’s eggs. Another was a set of red-cockaded woodpecker’s eggs. He found the woodpecker’s nest on May 2, 1896, “in living pine tree 12 feet high.”
On May 5, 1895, as another example, Richard robbed a parula warbler’s nest in Merry Hill. On the egg slip, he described the nest as “a bunch of moss” on the inside and “finer moss and very fine bark” on the outside. He wrote that he found the nest “at the end of a black gum limb 35 feet up.”
I imagined the young man scaling into the tree’s heights, and then inching far out onto a limb that, given that it was a black gum tree, probably hung over a swamp.
Another egg slip indicated that he confiscated 6 eggs from a tufted titmouse’s nest in the spring of 1897. He found the nest, he said, made of “fine strips of bark & moss & wool” in “a hollow maple 3 feet from the ground” in “thick woods near a road.”
A Boys’ Thing
At that point in our visit, my wife wandered off to look at the Bird Section’s wry in-house exhibit on the local peregrine falcons’ victims. It was nothing but bird feathers splayed against a wall in a hallway, but she definitely liked it better than my historic relics of what she considered child stealing.
An enthusiastic, 3rd-generation birder, my wife made clear that her sympathies lay entirely with the birds that lost their young to the Smithwicks.
She was not surprised when Dr. Willard told us that the bird eggs that had historically come into the museum’s collections had almost never been collected by women or girls.
My wife rejoined us when Dr. Willard led me to the egg collections. They were in a small, cluttered little room jam-packed with tall cabinets with long, narrow drawers. The Field’s collection holds roughly half a million egg specimens from all over the world and, when Dr. Willard opened a few of the drawers for us, we couldn’t help but gasp at their beauty.
Even my wife, despite considering the whole egg-collecting enterprise dubious, marveled at their opaline beauty, their boundless diversity and the feeling they gave us for the fragileness of what it takes to bring life into this world.
We looked at tiny, tiny hummingbird eggs, as small as a teardrop, and we gawked at the hefty, brown-speckled eggs of some of the North Atlantic cliff dwellers. They were soooo beautiful.
Whether pearl white or copper or indigo, they took our breath away.
Dr. Willard quickly found two sets of eggs collected by Richard Smithwick—those of a red-cockaded woodpecker, now so uncommon, and the chuck-will’s-widow. I don’t disagree with my wife’s skepticism of the egg collectors, but seeing the eggs was still deeply moving.
The Fragile and Evanescent
Before we left the Field, I spoke with Dr. Willard and Dr. Bates about the passion for egg collecting in the late 19th and early 20th century. They noted that, as at most other natural history museums, the Field’s naturalists had historically done little egg collecting in the wild.
Instead, they built up their collections with eggs that came to them from private collectors around the world. Most had been amateur naturalists like young Richard Smithwick.
His words reminded me of current scientific projects that draw on internet “crowd sourcing” to further research, like cataloging stars and sequencing DNA.
Dr. Willard and Dr. Bates indicated that the Field Museum’s bird egg collection has for a long time not been one of its most used. The popular passion for bird egg collecting cooled in the early 20th century, and new laws protecting birds and their eggs began to be enacted around 1920.
The thing about the old collections of specimens at places like the Field Museum, though, whether they be bird eggs or beetles or lichens, is that we never really know what we might learn from them one day. Both Dr. Willard and Dr. Bates made that point while my wife and I were in the museum’s Bird Section.
Some years ago, for instance, museum egg collections turned out to be critical to assessing historic levels of the pesticide DDT in the environment and their impact on living things.
More recently, scientists have been using the museum’s bird egg collections to understand better how industrialization, pollution and climate change have transformed local ecosystems over time.
Who knows what revelations they may lead us to in the future? So much in Nature seems fragile and evanescent now. With the passing of time, the short life of the young naturalist from Merry Hill may only come to seem more poignant and memorable.