All About Bird Eggs

 

Many of us at the New-York Historical Society have Audubon-mania. Our new exhibition of bird watercolors by John James Audubon, Audubon’s Aviary, has brought a lot of excitement to the museum’s galleries. Exploring the exhibition and seeing so many beautiful paintings of birds made me wonder what their eggs look like. I know that bird eggs can be just as beautiful as their plumage—Robin Egg Blue has always been my favorite Crayola crayon color—so I was surprised to discover that very few of Audubon’s bird studies in the exhibition include eggs. I was even more surprised to see that in two of the paintings, it looks as though the birds are stealing or eating other birds’ eggs. In one watercolor, three blue jays appear to be ferociously devouring another bird’s eggs. And in another, adult robins are feeding their young, while one adult robin towards the top of the image seems to have a white egg in its mouth.

 

Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata), Havell plate no. 102, 1825. Watercolor, graphite, pastel, and black ink with scratching out and selective glazing on paper, laid on card; Paper: 23 13/16 x 18 15/16 in. (60.5 x 48.1 cm). New-York Historical Society, Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.102

American Robin (Turdus migratorius), Havell plate no. 131, 1829. Watercolor, graphite, gouache, black ink, pastel, and black chalk with scratching out and selective glazing on paper, laid on card; Paper: 37 1/8 x 25 15/16 in. (94.3 x 65.9 cm) New-York Historical Society, Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.131

Is egg-stealing something birds actually do? I did some research to answer this question and others I had about bird eggs.

1)      Do some birds eat other birds’ eggs?

Blue jays and other members of the crow family are notorious egg-stealers. They are intelligent and aggressive and will raid other birds’ nests to steal eggs, young birds, and even the nest itself. So yes, the blue jays in the painting are indeed eating another bird’s eggs. Audubon wrote of the blue jay, “Who could imagine that a form so graceful…should harbor so much mischief.”

As for the robin, although it initially appeared to me that the bird in the above painting is eating an egg, this is not something robins are known to do. Robins’ diets consist of worms, fruits and berries, and more worms. Through my research, I found another painting of robins by Aududon. In this painting, the birds are sitting on a branch and eating berries that look a lot like the round white object I originally thought was an egg in the other painting. Mystery solved. The robin was not eating an egg, but a piece of fruit.

American Robin (Turdus migratorius), 1825. Pastel, watercolor, graphite, black ink, black chalk, and gauche with selective glazing on paper, laid on card; Paper: 18 3/4 x 11 5/8 in. (47.6 x 29.5 cm). New-York Historical Society, Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.18.19

 

2)      What is the largest bird egg?

The ostrich egg is the largest of all bird eggs, averaging at 3.3 lbs.  It’s around the size of a cantaloupe.

“Ostrich egg.” By Raul654, CC-BY-SA

3)      Which birds lay the most colorful eggs?

There are many bird species that lay eggs with beautiful coloring. Among them are robin eggs and emu eggs, both shades of bluish green. The emu egg is also one of the world’s largest, weighing in at around 2 lbs.

“American Robin Eggs in Nest” by Laslovarga, CC-BY-SA

“Emu egg” by Shuhari, CC-BY-SA

 

4)      Why are bird eggs different colors? Why do some have spots?

The color and markings on eggs help camouflage them to stay them hidden from predators. Sometimes the parent bird has to leave the eggs exposed in the nest, so it is important that the eggs blend into their surroundings. Birds that nest in holes in trees or places where they cannot be seen easily often lay white eggs, since they do not have to be camouflaged. Birds that nest on the ground usually lay eggs that are brown with brown or black markings so they look like the dirt and rocks in their habitats. However, scientists are still trying to come to a consensus on other reasons for egg coloring, such as why robins’ eggs are blue.

 

Want to see more birds and eggs? Make sure you visit Audubon’s Aviary: Part of I of The Complete Flock before May 19 at the New-York Historical Society.

To hear a story about birds, eggs, New York City, and the arrival of spring, don’t miss Little New-Yorkers on Tuesday, March 19 and Friday, March 22 at 3:30. We will read When Blue Met Egg by Lindsay Ward and make a special art project related to the story. Little New-Yorkers is recommended for children ages 3-5 and their accompanied adults.

 

 

 

 

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