There was no doubt whatever that the population of wild waterfowl in North America was on the decline toward the end of the last century. The only question was: what was causing it? George Bird Grinnell, a leader of the early conservation movement, one of the foremost outdoorsmen of his time and the editor of the magazine Forest and Stream, suspected that spring hunting and greedy hunters might be contributing to the decline. But as a conscientious editor he decided to make it his business to find out.
Senator John H. Mitchell (R., Ore.) was plagued by no such restraint. "It is a fact not generally known," declaimed the Senator in a speech calculated to raise the hackles of sportsmen and bird lovers from Maine to California, "that for the purpose of obtaining ova or egg albumen, a substance largely used in commerce, certain corporations have been formed and large amounts of capital invested for the purpose of gathering vast millions of the eggs of ducks and geese in their breeding grounds in Alaska and Northern Canada. Shipment of these eggs over the Canadian Pacific Railroad are said to be enormous. Not infrequently as many as 1,800 barrels are taken."
The Senator's story was not quite a revelation. Rumors of this nefarious practice had circulated among sportsmen for several years, and most of them seemed to have as their source an organization known as the National Game, Fish and Bird Protective Association. Indians in the employ of certain unidentified interests, ran the tales, ceaselessly prowled the tundra during the nesting season, gathering up all the eggs they could find, packing them into barrels and shipping them to confectioners in New York. There the eggs, the potential source of fodder for the sportsmen's guns, were turned instead into egg-albumen cakes, which sold in the shops for 25¢ a pound.
Senator Mitchell, though admittedly not an enthusiastic hunter himself, demanded an appropriation of at least $5,000 to begin an investigation of these dark practices. He would have done better to drop around and pay a call on Editor Grinnell.
Shy by nature and slight in build, Grinnell had learned his nature lessons at first hand. He had explored the Black Hills with General Custer, ridden the plains with Pawnee Indians and hunted big game all over the North American continent. Advocating sound game laws, he also was a leader of the early conservation movement.
Now, reading the Senator's words, Grinnell suspected what he called a "mare's nest"—a grand illusion. He felt that his first clue to the truth of the matter might be found in the source of the egg-albumen horror stories—the National Game, Fish and Bird Protective Association. "A careful investigation shows that millions of eggs are gathered and shipped from these grounds annually," an official of that association had told reporters. "Unless they are protected from such wanton destruction I fear we will, in a short time, be forced to enjoy our duck hunting in memories."
First, Grinnell delegated one of Forest and Stream's staff to bring back some of the results of the association's "careful investigation." The association's president, a Mr. M. R. Bortree, replied that he had no facts to give at that time, but promised to try to find some. Grinnell suspected that he would hear no more from Mr. Bortree, and he turned his attention to more rewarding sources.
If anything approaching the quantity of eggs mentioned in the stories were shipped each season from railroad points on the Northern Pacific Coast, he reasoned, someone would know about it. There would be a great coastwise traffic in these eggs. Trains of merchandise are not loaded up at night and shipped off secretly to unknown consignees, nor are shiploads of eggs received from foreign countries without entry at the customhouse. "A man," said Grinnell. "does not start with an egg in his pocket from the shores of the Far North, come down to the border line, smuggle it across and then go back for another."
Grinnell wrote to the general traffic managers of the Canadian Pacific and Northern Pacific railroads. After a thorough search of their books each replied that not a single barrel of wildfowl eggs had ever been shipped over their lines. One railroad official suggested that Senator Mitchell had been made the victim of a monstrous practical joke. Another was more specific:
"I wonder if Senator Mitchell considered how many wild birds' eggs it would take to fill 1,800 barrels, and how many years it would take to gather them; for, with the exception of gulls' eggs, which are gathered in larger quantities than those of any other wild birds, it would simply be an impossibility to gather the large quantity mentioned in a hundred years if anyone did feel disposed to do so."
Turning from the railroads, Grinnell then questioned officials of all the customhouses at ports and border towns through which wild birds' eggs might enter the U.S. None reported any record of either eggs or albumen.
"My opinion," volunteered a customs official, "is that more eggs are destroyed in the Mississippi Valley by the spring shooters than it would be possible to destroy in any collecting that could be carried out, even if eggs were worth one dollar a dozen at the breeding grounds."
Finally Grinnell consulted the albumen dealers in New York. From them he learned that almost the whole of the American albumen supply was imported from Russia, Germany and France where hens' eggs cost less than 4¢ a dozen.
"The cheapness of the foreign article, which is imported free of duty, prohibits American competition," a leading dealer told Grinnell. "Eggs imported from Alaska would be likely to spoil or lose their freshness before arriving here and would then be unfit for the manufacture of albumen."
Grinnell published the results of his investigation in Forest and Stream on June 22, 1895 under the title "The Great Duck Egg Fake." His article was preceded by a minifable:
"A Wild Goose sat on a Mare's Nest and hatched out a Beautiful Fake."
By such searching journalism Grinnell brought closer the day when sound hunting laws—including the abolition of spring shooting—became something more than idle chatter among the sportsmen of America.