In photos: Giant eggs, tiny eggs, and the eggceptionally rare

Bird expert Colin Miskelly highlights some of the treasures in our egg collection, including those thought to be held only by Te Papa – as well as giant moa eggs, tiny rifleman eggs, and eggs that were acquired during dramatic events in New Zealand’s conservation history.

Digitising our egg collection

Most of the bird eggs held by Te Papa are stored in our off-display research collections. Natural environment photographer Jean-Claude Stahl has recently completed a major project to photograph at least one example of every New Zealand bird species for which we hold eggs. His spectacular images are now published on Collections Online, and (with additional data) on New Zealand Birds Online.

Egg of stout-legged moa

Egg of stout-legged moa (194 mm x 139 mm) found by Jim Eyles at Wairau Bar, Marlborough, in 1939. Specimen ME.012749. Photograph by Norman Heke. Te Papa

South Island kokako egg (42.0 mm x 27.4 mm), Hokitika, date unknown. Specimen OR.007626. Photograph by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa

South Island kokako egg (42.0 mm x 27.4 mm), Hokitika, date unknown. Specimen OR.007626. Photograph by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa

The project has produced data and images of the largest and smallest eggs in the collection, and also the oldest and most recent additions. We have also selected eggs that were collected by notable people, or that are associated with significant events.

Te Papa holds 3,058 bird eggs, or clutches of eggs, of which 1,924 are from New Zealand. The collection includes eggs of 204 species that breed (or have bred) in New Zealand, although for a few species the eggs that we hold were collected offshore (e.g. bird species that are more abundant in Australia than in New Zealand).

South Island takahe eggs

South Island takahe eggs (74.7 mm x 48.9 mm & 74.5 mm x 48.3 mm) collected in Takahe Valley by Robert Falla in 1949, a year after the birds were rediscovered. Specimen OR.000546. Photograph by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa

Nankeen night heron clutch

Nankeen night heron clutch collected on Cabbage Tree Island, off Port Stephens, New South Wales, in 1929. Specimen OR.008544, eggs approx. 54 mm x 38 mm. Photograph by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa

The biggest and smallest eggs

The largest egg held by Te Papa is a 240 mm x 178 mm South Island giant moa egg found at Kaikoura in the late 1850s. The smallest New Zealand bird eggs were laid by riflemen and fantails, both of which have eggs that are about 16 mm x 12.5 mm.

Eggstremes. South Island giant moa and rifleman eggs to the same scale. Specimens ME.012749 and OR.007264 (latter collected by Captain John Bollons at Akaroa, date unknown). Photogtaph by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa

Eggstremes. South Island giant moa and rifleman eggs to the same scale. Specimens ME.012749 and OR.007264 (latter collected by Louis Vangioni at Akaroa, from the collection of Captain John Bollons). Photograph by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa

The largest egg laid by a living New Zealand bird in the Te Papa collection is a 134 mm x 83 mm egg of a southern brown kiwi (tokoeka), found on Stewart Island in 1969.

The largest egg laid by a flying bird was a 122 mm x 80 mm egg laid by a northern royal albatross, collected on the Chatham Islands in 1974.

Stewart Island brown kiwi egg found by Mike Soper, Cooks Arm, Port Pegasus, October 1969. Specimen OR.014963. Image: Jean-Claude Stahl, Te Papa

Stewart Island brown kiwi egg found by Mike Soper, Cooks Arm, Port Pegasus, October 1969. Specimen OR.014963. Photograph by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa

The oldest and most recent eggs

The oldest collection date for a New Zealand bird egg held at Te Papa is 1852 for a stout-legged moa egg found by Walter Mantell at Awamoa, North Otago – though note that all moa eggs were laid hundreds of years before they were discovered or rediscovered.

The most recent addition to the collection was a damaged broad-billed prion egg that I found at the type locality for the species (Dusky Sound) in November 2016.

Broad-billed prion egg

Broad-billed prion egg (51.5 mm x 37.2 mm) found by Colin Miskelly, Seal Islands, Dusky Sound, November 2016. Specimen OR.030151. Photograph by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa

Eggs from extinct species

The collection includes eggs of several species that are now extinct, including the:

Laughing owl egg (44.2 mm x 39.5 mm). Locality and date unknown. Specimen OR.030062. Photograph by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa

Laughing owl egg (44.2 mm x 39.5 mm). Locality and date unknown. Specimen OR.030062. Photograph by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa

In addition to huia, Te Papa is thought to be the only museum that holds examples of eggs of:

Auckland Island rail clutch, Maclaren Bay, Adams Island, Auckland Islands. Collected by Graeme Elliott, November 1989. Specimen OR.024502; larger egg 35 mm x 27 mm. Photograph by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa

Auckland Island rail clutch, Maclaren Bay, Adams Island, Auckland Islands. Collected by Graeme Elliott, November 1989. Specimen OR.024502; larger egg 35 mm x 27 mm. Photograph by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa

Campbell Island snipe clutch, Monument Harbour, Campbell Island. Collected by Colin Miskelly, January 2006. Specimen OR.027632; larger egg 44 mm x 31 mm. Photograph by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa

Campbell Island snipe clutch, Monument Harbour, Campbell Island. Collected by Colin Miskelly, January 2006. Specimen OR.027632; larger egg 44 mm x 31 mm. Photograph by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa

Attitudes to collecting bird eggs

Attitudes to collecting bird eggs have changed over time, and this is reflected in New Zealand legislation.

From the earliest days, if a bird species was protected in New Zealand, then its eggs were protected under the same legislation. This began with protection of introduced game birds in 1861, with selected native species added from 1865 (wild ducks and pigeons ‘indigenous to the colony’).

Nearly all native bird species and their eggs have been protected since 1907, and all but two species of native birds (spur-winged plover and southern black-backed gull) and their eggs are currently protected under the Wildlife Act.

This means that the egg collections acquired by Te Papa are either very old (mainly pre-1910), or the eggs have been collected by individuals or institutions authorised to do so.

Spur-winged plover clutch

Spur-winged plover clutch collected by Max Falconer at Paekakariki, November 1975. Specimen OR.018754, eggs approx. 46 mm x 35 mm. Photograph by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa

Auckland Island teal clutch ex captivity at Mt Bruce, collected by the Department of Conservation, October 1997. Specimen OR.025368, eggs approx. 61 x 46 mm. Image: Jean-Claude Stahl, Te Papa

Auckland Island teal clutch ex captivity at Mt Bruce, collected by the Department of Conservation, October 1997. Specimen OR.025368, eggs approx. 61 mm x 46 mm. Photograph by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa

Dramatic egg stories

Many of the eggs and clutches of eggs held by Te Papa have dramatic stories behind their collection. These include the numerous clutches of dunnock, Chatham Island warblerand Chatham Island tomtit eggs collected by the New Zealand Wildlife Service on Mangere and Rangatira Islands in the Chatham Islands between 1980 and 1987.

The eggs were collected when the team removed host eggs to replace them with dummy eggs during the black robin cross-fostering programme. If the host pair accepted a dummy egg, they would be entrusted with an incredibly precious black robin egg. Black robins reached a low of only five individuals in 1980, but now number more than 250 birds, partly thanks to the tomtits, which proved to be the most effective foster parents. (The programme was continued for several more years by the Department of Conservation, which was created in April 1987.)

Chatham Island warbler clutch collected by Allan Munn, NZ Wildlife Service, on Mangere Island, Chatham Islands, October 1982. Specimen OR.022522, eggs approx. 19 x 13 mm. Image: Jean-Claude Stahl, Te Papa

Chatham Island warbler clutch collected by Allan Munn, NZ Wildlife Service, on Mangere Island, Chatham Islands, October 1982. Specimen OR.022522, eggs approx. 19 mm x 13 mm. Photograph by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa

Chatham Island tomtit clutch collected by Don Merton, Department of Conservation, on Rangatira Island, Chatham Islands, November 1987. Specimen OR.024476, eggs approx. 19 x 14 mm. Image: Jean-Claude Stahl, Te Papa

Chatham Island tomtit clutch collected by Don Merton, Department of Conservation, on Rangatira Island, Chatham Islands, November 1987. Specimen OR.024476, eggs approx. 19 mm x 14 mm. Photograph by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa

More recently, the museum acquired five clutches of New Zealand dotterel eggs from the Department of Conservation, as a result of the Rena oil spill in 2011.

The adult birds on Maketu Spit were caught and held in aviaries until Bay of Plenty beaches were cleaned up and were no longer at risk of further oil washing ashore.

These are all rare modern examples of entire clutches being collected from protected birds. Most of the additions to the Te Papa egg collection in the last 50 years have been single infertile or damaged eggs found by researchers.

New Zealand dotterel clutch, Maketu Spit, Bay of Plenty, October 2011. Specimen OR.029416, eggs approx. 45 mm x 32 mm. Photograph by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa

New Zealand dotterel clutch, Maketu Spit, Bay of Plenty, October 2011. Specimen OR.029416, eggs approx. 45 mm x 32 mm. Photograph by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa

Future blogs will explore some of the individuals and institutions who were major contributors to the Te Papa egg collection.

Related blog

What was New Zealand’s first fully protected native bird?

10 Responses

  1. Jo Russell

    What a fantastic day of photographs of the collection. The Otorohanga Kiwi House also had a large collection of native eggs. We’d be keen to understand more about how the photographs were taken as we’d like to record our collection in a similar way.

    Reply
    • Colin Miskelly

      Kia ora Jo
      Thanks very much for your comment. I will contact you directly about your photography enquiry.
      Kind regards
      Colin

  2. Olwen Mason

    Thanks for this, Colin. I read recently that owls have round eggs so I was interested to see the Laughing Owl’s egg. It doesn’t look completely round. in that picture, to me. Are all owl eggs round? Have you any idea why? The item I read was about the shape of eggs and said it was governed by flying ability – fast, agile fliers producing more elongated eggs. What does that say about owls? Here is the article http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/06/surprisingly-simple-explanation-shape-bird-eggs.

    Reply
    • Colin Miskelly

      Thanks very much for your comments Olwen
      The laughing owl egg is one of the ’roundest’ eggs in the collection. Round eggs is a characteristic that owls share with several other tree-hole nesting groups (e.g. parrots and kingfishers). The paper that you quote is certainly intriguing, but there is a lot of scatter in the graph, suggesting that there are multiple factors affecting egg shape. If flying ability was a major driver, I would expect greater variation with a group – e.g. sedentary owls having rounder eggs than migratory ones. There are clearly many exceptions to the pattern. Kiwi don’t fly at all, but have very elongated eggs, presumably because they are so large in relation to body size.
      Kind regards
      Colin

  3. Barbara Hammonds

    Thanks Colin and Jean-Claude. What a great opportunity to tell these stories. I was especially moved by the eggs of the extinct birds i knew less about than the moas, like the bush wren, and followed the links to NZ Bird to see some of these.

    Reply
    • Colin Miskelly

      Thanks very much Barbara
      Yes – the eggs are a poignant reminder of how recently so many of our native birds have become extinct. We decided during the project to include measurements of all the eggs that are shown individually on NZ Birds Online. You need steady nerves to handle and measure such fragile relics of extinct species.
      Kind regards
      Colin

  4. Marie-Louise Myburgh

    Great read. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Colin Miskelly

      Thanks very much for your feedback Marie-Louise
      Kind regards
      Colin

  5. Denis Asher

    A lovely survey, with gorgeous images. That would have been a tough task for J-C?!

    Reply
    • Colin Miskelly

      Thanks very much Denis.
      Jean-Claude admitted to being quite moved (and more than a little nervous) photographing the moa eggs – and I also appreciated the opportunity to see these taonga when removed from their storage cases.
      Kind regards
      Colin

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