“Collection…one of the best in existence”
“…one of the treasures of our State”
These accolades referred not to a collection of precious gems or rare artwork, but instead to one of bird eggs collected by renowned local ornithologist, John Simpson Cairns (1862-1895) of Weaverville. Cairns’ research contributed significantly to the field of modern ornithology. By climbing trees and forging waterways and rocky slopes, he was able to collect thousands of wild bird eggs in the WNC mountains throughout the 1880s until 1895.
The question in 2022, however, was: Where were they?
Cairns’ day job was managing Weaverville’s Reems Creek Woolen Mills (owned by his father), but his true passion was traipsing through the mountains, observing birds, gathering specimens, and making detailed notes of nesting sites and behavior.
His parents thought this activity was odd and strongly disapproved, but he was not alone in his interest. Egg collecting was a popular hobby in the 19th century. However, Cairns took it to the next level, becoming well known in scientific circles, sharing his research and specimens with ornithologists at universities and museums, publishing journal articles, and compiling List of the Birds of Buncombe County, North Carolina (1891). Eggs, feathers, and nests from his collections are still housed in museums such as the Smithsonian Institution, Duke University, and Harvard University. Unfortunately, he died by accidental gunfire while climbing a tree during one of his forays on June 10,1895 at the age of 33, leaving behind his wife and two children.
After his death, several institutions began clamoring to obtain eggs from his extensive private collection which one source states contained 4000 specimens. Duke University even offered free education for the Cairns children in exchange for specimens, but the family needed money. Dr. F.A. Sondley, local historian and avid collector with eclectic taste, got wind of this and paid an unknown sum for the eggs. He added them to his own vast set of collections which included books, firearms, minerals, and artifacts, all of which he bequeathed to the City of Asheville.
For a long time, Cairns’ eggs rested on the top floor of City Hall. In the 1940s, the Asheville Bird Club petitioned for care of the collection, eventually encasing the eggs in a glass and wooden cabinet. It was displayed and then stored at Pack Memorial Library until it was loaned to the WNC Nature Center in 1986. There it was kept in the barn for public viewing and as an educational tool. There was no plaque commemorating Cairns on the display, and by that time, not many would have known who he was.
Time passed, county administrations changed, and there was renewed interest in all the Sondley collections, some of which had been loaned to outside institutions. Sondley’s will mandates that the library maintain ownership, so updated loan agreements were sent to the those responsible for their housing.
But the WNC Nature Center no longer possessed the eggs and had no records on their existence or their transport. They had mysteriously vanished.
As a BCSC Friend, I volunteered to do some investigating. Knowing that busy administrators could be slow to respond to inquiries from private citizens, I felt I needed to recruit someone with clout. So, I contacted Zoe Rhine, the retired manager of the library’s special collections, who has a talent for tracking. After I had rattled on about DNA and the scientific and local historical importance of this collection, Zoe agreed to help. I gave her a list of all possible contacts at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences as a starting point. One call and she hit pay dirt.
John Gerwin, Research Curator in the Ornithology Unit, responded that yes, he did indeed have a collection matching that description in storage. When he’d picked it up at the nature center years ago and asked about its history, he had been told, “I’m not sure, but I heard they were collected by some guy who really knew his Western NC birds…”
Gerwin was thrilled to learn that he had a Cairns collection in safekeeping at the museum.
You may well ask, why the fuss? Who cares about old eggs? What is such a collection worth except as an object of curiosity and, perhaps, beauty?
Surprisingly, an eggshell, even a fragment, can tell a host of stories. Museums receive inquiries from scientists around the world eager to extract information from old egg collections. They can provide data on evolutionary history, behavior, ecological changes, and climate change. Eggshells have also played an instrumental role in conservation. For example, in 1968, eggs that had been collected from different regions between 1890 and 1920 helped to prove that DDT and some pesticides were a threat to the environment. This resulted in their ban, saving certain species from extinction. But the misadventures of the Cairns collection have taken a toll. The picture below taken in 1931 in Sondley’s home, shows that the collection contained an enormous number of eggs. Exactly how many is unknown because no original inventory has been found.
In 1946, the library board released the collection to Clarence Joyner of the Asheville Bird Club. It is unclear how long the eggs were in his possession. In 1959, it was reported that the collection had been restored and labeled, but noted that many of the eggs had been shattered. No fragments were saved. The remaining 343 eggs were placed in a display case as shown below before going to the nature center in 1986.
Another inventory completed in 1991 while the collection was still at the nature center indicated a further decrease to 297. Today there are 295 eggs remaining.
This story is unfortunately not unusual. The fragile nature of eggs, feathers, and nests has been the bane of many museum curators. The specimens demand specific care to retain their value, and there is loss at times, even under the best conditions.
As a conservation measure, collecting eggs from wild birds became illegal in 1918. Today, the act of raiding nests seems cruel and offends modern sensibilities, as bird populations continue to decrease across all habitats.
But during the time Cairns was exploring the WNC forests, the mountains were still wild, containing large, diverse flocks of birds and other animals, now absent. Collecting eggs was a risky business – nests were rarely within easy reach and encounters with bears and wildcats were not uncommon. But Cairns seems to have been driven by a love for nature. He is said to have inspired, even after his death, the push for legislation to establish the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Cairns’ work was especially valuable because it was conducted as logging and industrialization were just beginning to change mountain ecology. As Buncombe County’s self-taught ornithologist, Cairns should be remembered for his patient diligence, commitment to scientific inquiry, and contributions to wildlife conservation.
The lost collection, what remains of it, is now found, and will be protected in Raleigh in the museum setting. And its story perhaps serves as a cautionary tale about the importance of protecting and maintaining collections, even those of “old eggs.”
The Letters of John S. Cairns to William Brewster, 1887-1895 Marcus B. Simpson, Jr. The North Carolina Historical Review, Vol. 55, No. 3 (July, 1978), pp. 306-338
“Collection Made By Cairns, Famed Young Scientist” Asheville Citizen-Times Aug 4 1940
“John S. Cairns Was Outstanding Ornithologist” Asheville Citizen-Times March 26 1950
“Buncombe’s Bird Man” Asheville Citizen-Times Dec 11 1977
Pack Memorial Library Board Minutes, July 18 1946 and July 30 1959
About the Author
Louise Maret has worked as a researcher in primatology, botany, and public health. As a writer, she has been involved in several training and educational projects, most recently as co-author of a college-level humanities webtext,The Search For Meaning and Value. After living in New York, Ohio, Vermont, and Georgia, she moved to Asheville in 1988 and settled in Lakeview Park where she raised two children and a variety of plants and animals. While at Pack Library one day, she found the North Carolina Room–“where I became immediately entranced.”