by Lindsay Townsend
It’s like something out of a movie—the egg at the museum that someone long ago wrote a mysterious poem about. But such a story is no fantasy at the Delaware Museum of Natural History. We really do have a poem in our archives about one of our guillemot eggs and its imagined discovery at the Bempton Cliffs in Great Britain nearly a hundred years ago. Both poem and egg are called “The Bempton Belle.”
Guillemots are a seagoing bird in the same family as puffins, says Jean Woods, Ph.D., the Museum’s Director of Collections and Curator of Birds. Most of the time, they live at sea, only coming to shore to lay their eggs on cliffs.
“Their legs are very, very far back because that gives them the best sort of leverage for diving efficiently, and so they are very awkward on land,” Dr. Woods says.
Although Woods doesn’t recall any other eggs with poems in the museum’s collection, the Belle is unusual in another way as well.
Guillemot eggs can be green, blue, white, or red. The Bempton Belle is red—or at least it was at one time. Today the egg appears brown due to natural fading. However, this once red color recently made the egg interesting to researchers from England and Canada.
In a paper published this year in Archives of Natural History, Tim Birkhead from the University of Sheffield and Robert Montgomerie from Queens University stated that red guillemot eggs are exceptionally uncommon, and that “females laying red eggs occur less than once in a thousand (or ten thousand).” Collectors prized red guillemot eggs for their unusual color, and the Belle was one such egg the researchers featured when they discussed the history and culture of guillemot egg collecting in the early part of the 20th century.
Today the Belle is housed in a small white box, in a shallow drawer with other boxed guillemot eggs, one piece in the museum’s J. W. Goodall’s collection—a subset of a larger collection once owned by British millionaire Captain Vivian Hewitt.
Much has changed since the days when Hewitt and Goodall obtained the Belle. Today the Bempton Cliffs are a nature preserve, and egg collection is for the most part illegal in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Eggs collected, though, in the time of Goodall and Hewitt still provide scientists will valuable information.
“A lot of the eggs in the collection are eighty to a hundred years old,” says Woods. “And so when you think about how much the face of the earth has changed in the last eighty to hundred years—a hundred years takes you back to World War I and before most people had cars—this gives you a lot of information about where birds were found historically.”
The Bempton Belle, while unusual in many ways, is merely one of thousands of eggs the museum has that researchers can potentially find useful.
“It’s up to the creativity of the researcher to come up with ways to use the information that’s associated either with the eggs themselves—the size, the shape, the colors—or the information about where, when, that sort of thing, to ask scientific questions,” says Woods.
For more information about the museum’s research grants or how researchers can arrange to view our collection, please visit the following links:
Birkhead, T. R. & Montgomerie, R. (March 2018). Rare red eggs of the Common Guillemot (Uria aalge): birds, biology and people at Bempton, Yorkshire, in the early 1900s. Archives of Natural History, 45(1). Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.3366/anh.2018.0483
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. (n.d.) Egg Collecting. Retrieved from: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/advice/wildlife-and-the-law/wild-bird-crime/egg-collecting/
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (n.d.) The Lacey Act. Retrieved from: https://www.fws.gov/International/laws-treaties-agreements/us-conservation-laws/lacey-act.html
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (Dec. 3, 2017). Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Retrieved from: https://www.fws.gov/birds/policies-and-regulations/laws-legislations/migratory-bird-treaty-act.php