Book of Eggs

Eggs from The Field Museum's collection, each in its own tray, aligned in rows.

From the frigid Antarctic where King Penguins take turns warming their eggs atop their feet, to the deserts where the Desert Lark hides its eggs under a rock ledge to protect it from the blazing noon sun, the diversity of birds that successfully reproduce using the egg is astonishing! The egg easily captures human imagination, perhaps because people and birds share one another’s sensory worlds: communication through voices, colors, shapes, and other visible and audio displays to our kind and to other species.

That’s why Field Museum scientists and colleagues have just released a new book, entitled The Book of Eggs. The book is a life-size guide that introduces readers to six hundred bird species from around the world, whose eggs are housed mostly at The Field Museum. Readers will embark on a journey told through individual stories that highlight the strategies employed by birds to successfully reproduce through the fragile but colorful structure that is the egg.

Throughout history, eggs have inspired everyone from curious birdwatchers, to artists, to scientists. For scientists like John Bates, Associate Curator of Birds at The Field Museum, the intrigue is in the factors responsible for such wonders as coloration, shape, and size. Organized by habitat and taxonomy, the entries in each chapter include life-size photographs of the eggs - or portions of the eggs that are larger than the book itself - that reproduce the detail of each egg in full color, as well as maps and drawings that further describe the breeding habits of the bird that lays the egg.

Scientists at The Field Museum hope that by photographing and publishing images of the egg collection in this project, they will not only highlight the stories of the birds that produce the eggs, but also lay the groundwork for other projects that use museum collections. “One of the coolest eggs we have in the collection is from the Common Murre, a colonial bird whose eggs is shaped to a point, so that if it rolls, it will roll in a circle and not off the edge of the cliff on which they nest,” said Bates. “We can learn a lot about a bird’s interactions with its environment by studying their eggs; for instance, egg collections have been used to demonstrate detrimental effects of pesticides.” The Book of Eggs is a perfect example of the way collections can tell stories, but they are scientific treasure troves as well.

“With this book, we are only scratching the surface of what a collection like this can be used for, said Bates. Digitizing collections in this way can stir the imaginations of scientists. We’re using our egg collection to document changes in breeding dates for common Midwestern birds over the last 100 years; this can tell us how these birds are responding to changing climate.

Check out many examples of eggs from The Field Museum’s collection and The Book of Eggs on display in the Science Newsflash exhibit in Stanley Field Hall, and in the Museum bookstore!