Thursday, May 22, 2008

The lure of birds’ eggs

The obsessive zeal with which some men - for it is almost always men - hunt down, steal, and hoard birds’ eggs is difficult to understand for most of us, especially since it is a criminal activity. However, recently a master criminal in this respect, Richard Pearson, was caught and sent to jail. A set of carefully compiled diaries helped to give some insight into his obsession. But for a literary appreciation of the lure of birds’ eggs, temptation tasted yet resisted, one should visit Barbellion’s early 20th century diaries.

Skegness Magistrates Court sentenced Pearson last April to 23 weeks in prison and ordered him to pay £1,500 in costs for illegally stealing and possessing birds’ eggs. The police prosecutor, in presenting his case, called Pearson’s hoard, discovered at the Cleethorpes family home in 2007, as an ‘Aladdin’s Cave’, according to a BBC News report. In total, police officers found more than 7,000 eggs, including many rare species, says RSPB investigator Mark Thomas on his blog, such as honey buzzard, Montagu’s harrier, red-necked phalarope, black-tailed godwit, dotterel, greenshank and red-backed shrike.

The police also found 59 dead birds in a freezer and dozens of diaries detailing where and when he had found the eggs; and they seized egg-hunting paraphernalia - a rubber dinghy, waders, climbing spikes, syringes, cameras and sat-nav systems.

At the time of his arrest, Pearson claimed he had been given the eggs by the late Colin Watson, an infamous egg collector, who had died in May 2006 after falling from a larch tree containing a sparrowhawk nest. Prior to his death, Watson had been convicted seven times for offences connected to birds’ eggs. However, Pearson’s meticulous diaries, as decoded by the RSPB investigators, gave the police all the information they needed for a successful prosecution.

Also among his possessions, Pearson had photocopies of diaries written by Watson which together with Pearson’s diaries, the Times Online says, provide ‘an insight into the minds of men who crawl up trees and down cliff faces, risking their lives in pursuit of prizes with no monetary value that can never be displayed in their homes for fear of a police raid’. The same article, using RSPB sources, explains how these men saw their exploits as comparable to secret agents, and how half the fun was in beating the police, the RSPB and the system.

The lure of bird’s eggs is not only experienced by criminal types. Just after the First World War, a young man made this entry in his diary: ‘Birds’ eggs were another electrifying factor in my youth. I can remember tramping to and fro all one warm June afternoon over a bracken-covered sandy waste, searching for a nightjar’s eggs. H—— and I quartered out the ground systematically, till presently, after two hours’ search, the hen goat-sucker flipped up at my feet and fluttered away like a big moth across the silvery bracken out of sight. Lying before me on the ground were two long, grey eggs, marbled like pebbles. I turned away from this intoxicating vision, flicking my fingers as if I had been bitten. Then I turned, approached slowly, and gloated. It was just such an effect on me as a girl’s beautiful face used to make — equally tantalising and out of reach. I stared, fingered them, put one to my lips. Then it was over. I had to leave them, and an equal thrill at goat-suckers’ eggs could never return again.’

The young man was born Bruce Frederick Cummings in 1889, but is better known today by his pen name, W N P Barbellion, because of the fame of his diary - The Journal of a Disappointed Man. It was published, with a preface by H G Wells, in 1919, only months before his death, aged but 30. The diary is freely available on the internet at Barbellionblog (many thanks to Ray Davis for the website).

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