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Book Review: Egg and Nest, by Rosamund Purcell

Reviewed by Stephen J. Bodio
Rosamund Purcell book review bird eggs

Is photography art? I would state unequivocally that Rosamund Purcell’s is, and also that it qualifies as “science art.” Egg and Nest is a lush celebration of eggs (mostly collected in the heyday of oology) and nests, their beauty and their function.

In his introduction, Bernd Heinrich brings together the themes of visual appeal and scientific knowledge: “The story of the variety of birds’ nests and egg colors adds functional to visual beauty in ways the Victorian collectors, whose labors of love please the eye and tease the mind, likely never suspected.”

Egg collecting must have been a compelling obsession. Even its tools are beautiful; one plate shows egg holders, quill markers, a belt of almost microscopic drill bits, and a decorative brass flashlight with a long arm leading to a mirror.

But the eggs (and nests) are the ultimate obsession, whether odd (two-shelled and distorted eggs; a nest made of nails and fireworks plugs) or sublime. It is easy to see “what it is about eggs and nests that called out to both professional and amateur ornithologists alike, inspiring them to spend large amounts of time in the field collecting the materials . . . despite the risk of going into debt, alienating their friends and family, and even losing their lives.”

Here you will find eggs in all their variety, ranging in size from hummingbird to Elephant Bird; eggs with markings like calligraphy; tinamou eggs so glossy that they reflect images of the windows above. There are nests in cans, pipes, and saucepans; woven, sewn nests, the ethereal, almost transparent tube nest of the Malimbe; edible nests made only of saliva.

The last chapter veers into nearly “pure” art and strange visuals: the “shoe” forms made by Gila Woodpeckers in saguaro cacti; a wasp nest in a birdhouse; a calcified nest from a limestone cave; a “Mercator projection” of a murre’s egg beside an almost identical ink sketch by Soutine. In Egg and Nest, science and art flow seamlessly into each other.

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