I'm rubbish at finding birds' nests, and rubbish at identifying their eggs, and so I have a small sneaking admiration for the skill of egg collectors but that is where it ends.
Talking to RSPB Investifations staff, they are more hard-nosed on the subject. Here is a selection of things they said: 'look like petty criminals and are', 'more obsessive than birders', 'often spotted by birdwatchers just because they look shifty' and so on.
Egg collectors are always male - there was an unverified rumour of a female egg-collector but it was probably just 'wishful' thinking. And they are competitive - they want to get to that egg first. A typical egg collector, if there is such a thing, will have amassed a collection of between 1000 and 2000 eggs, with many Schedule 1 species represented in it.
But they are a dying breed. That might partly be because far too many of us are losing touch with nature but it is more likely to be better police action co-ordinated through Operation Easter and the introduction of custodial sentences for the crime. In the past the same people would keep re-appearing in front of magistrates, collect a fine and go back to their pillaging.
There have been 11 individual egg collectors given custodial sentences (one has had two and another three), with the longest being 5 months. The big stick approach seems to be working as the incidence of egg-collecting is falling.
But birds of conservation concern are still targetted. Last year the pair of red-backed shrikes nesting in the UK needed intensive guarding and surveillance as it was visited by known egg collectors, and this is a species whose demise in England was probably sealed by egg collectors (although the overall decline was more to do with the loss of large insects from farmland, we believe). Very rare species (once even rarer) such as white-tailed eagle and bittern have been targetted by egg collectors.
And you can't show off your collection of dead young birds (that's what eggs are) very easily so they are hidden away in secret rooms (by the rich) or in a specially-adapted caravan or under the floorboards if you are of more modest means. The police, when searching for egg collections, look in all the places where they would look for drugs if on a drugs raid.
Although a dying breed, the activities of egg-collectors still can have harmful impacts and the RSPB spends thousands of pounds a year guarding nests and investigating crimes and suspected crimes. Nobody else will do it if we don't.
There is an indirect effect to egg collecting which is also very damaging, and that is the suspicion and mistrust that everyone involved in birdwatching treats every single stranger that they meet. Although this is understandable it has the consequence of completely discouraging newcomers to birding. I am sure that everyone that has watched a rare bird in presence of other birders has witnessed the stone-walling of strangers when they have asked what we are looking at. The reason for this is obviously to prevent the wholesale publication of the whereabouts of rare birds, but what a shame it is.
I visited the ‘Aren’t Birds Brilliant’ event at Frampton Marsh a few years ago. It was the first time that I had seen Montagu’s Harriers in the UK, and there were lots of birdwatchers there of vastly differing age and experience. I can honestly say that it was a real pleasure to be able to enjoy these birds at an organised event, and let people use my scope so that they could see these very rare birds. A great idea by the RSPB, but without the round the clock surveillance to protect the birds from egg collectors it could never have been possible.
I am afraid that egg collectors, although in decline, still have a devastating effect on the enjoyment of birds for a great many people.
Such a pitty Mark that the efforts employed to produce the custodial sentences which are deterring egg collectors collectors have never been channelled into catching the serial raptor poisoners.
Mark, I am glad egg collectors are disappearing but even a few is too many as they have a greater impact than their numbers would suggest by concentrating on the rarer species.
It is not often I disagree with the Investigations Dept but I back up your view of egg collectors. Very skillful and knowledgeable and would beat me to finding a nest by a mile; unfortunately using that skill for the wrong reason. Admittedly I am not up to date on this subject but the ones I have met would fit quite happily into a local bird group without looking at all shifty and no-one would be any the wiser.
Red backed Shrikes declined due to the use of Ivemec in stock killing all beetles and insects that feed on their dung. This chemical is still found on RSPB reserves even though in some cases the grass letting is for stock without this chemical use on the reserve itself. I used bag cow dung for the green house and the bag used to be full of beetle lava. Not any more.
Sometimes I am amazed we have any wildlife left at all with all the pressures on it. A pair of Avocets that bred for the first time on our local reserve needed 24 hour guarding from eggers. We didn't get much sleep for a couple of weeks but they succeeded and this year we have at least 6 pairs breeding.
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