For the Birds Radio Program: Eggs

Original Air Date: Feb. 17, 1989

A boy named Jesse asked Laura to do a program about eggs.

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(Recording of a Peregrine Falcon)

Boy have I got egg on my face. First I put all my eggs in one basket, and then, like a real egghead I counted my eggs before they hatched, and before I knew it my nest egg smelled like rotten eggs. For a while it was like walking on eggs. But, as they say, you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, so I’ll just keep searching for the goose that laid the golden egg, wondering which really came first—the chicken or the egg.

From Easter eggs to eggs Benedict, eggs have had a great impact not only on the English language but on the way we think about the world. Eggs aren’t like most foods, that merely provide nutrition. Each fertilized egg holds a complete life within its fragile shell and can grow into a bird which will eventually lay many more eggs—a wonder that inspired many cultures to use eggs as symbols of the regenerating life of spring. Snakes, lizards, turtles, frogs, salamanders, fish, and invertebrates all lay eggs, too—but somehow the eggs of birds have more power over our imaginations. Unlike reptile eggs, covered with a tough leathery skin, bird eggs are encased in a fragile calcareous shell. In spite of the fact that an egg shell is thin and delicate, it’s strong enough to bear the weight of the parent birds—strong enough even to withstand the force of human hands squeezing it. The public outcry against D.D.T. in the 60’s was less because of its potential effect on human beings than because it causes eggshell thinning—the horrifying image of a mother Peregrine Falcon splattering her babies was a powerful incentive to ban this dangerous pesticide.

The shapes and colors of bird eggs are in part determined by the species’ nesting habits. Eggs are round in species like woodpeckers that nest in tree cavities, where there is no risk of the eggs rolling out, and are pointed on one end in seabirds that lay their eggs on the edges of steep cliffs. If one of these eggs starts to roll, it can only go in tight circles. I have no idea why robins and catbirds lay pretty bluish eggs, but many eggs are spotted, splotched, streaked, or marbled with brown to blend in with the surroundings. Cavity nesters tend to lay white glossy eggs—they don’t need camouflage deep inside a hole in a tree, and white eggs may make it easier for the parents to see them in the dark.

Some birds, like ducks, can lay a dozen eggs in a clutch, while others, like the California Condor, lay only a single egg each year. Hummingbirds lay the smallest eggs—some smaller than peas. The ostrich lays the largest egg of all living birds—it weighs over three pounds—but the Kiwi’s egg is largest relative to its body size—it weighs about a quarter of the adult’s weight, giving new meaning to the word “eggshaustion.”

I was egged on to do this program by a ten-year-old boy named Jesse, who wanted to know what hawk eggs look like. The Bald Eagle normally lays 2 dull white oval eggs that are only about 3/4 of an inch longer than grade A large chicken eggs. Red-tailed Hawks lay three or four eggs that are streaked or splotched with brown, almost the same size as eagle eggs. The tiny sparrow hawk or kestrel lays 4 or 5 eggs about as long as a half dollar, pinkish white and covered with tiny brown dots. Jesse, I hope I didn’t lay an egg with this program, and that you found all these facts eggstremely eggciting.

(Recording of a Bald Eagle)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”