Whoever heard of talking eggs? Why should I take a personal interest in a collection of wild bird eggs in an old Iowa farmhouse? And who was Ralph Handsaker? Some of life's most intriguing revelations are wrapped in a blanket of pure serendipity.
It began in April of 2003 with a phone call from my brother Don. He lives on our family farm where I grew up near Zearing, Iowa. Don works at the Almaco farm machinery manufacturing company in Nevada, Iowa. One of his co-workers, John Handsaker, was getting married, and John's co-worker Craig Wilkening had told Don about the old farmhouse on the Handsaker homestead. John was to make his new home there. The farmhouse had previously belonged to John's great-grandfather, Ralph Handsaker.
Craig Wilkening told Don about many unique old mounted animals in the house. Ralph had mounted the creatures long ago when he was a farmer and amateur taxidermist living near Colo, Iowa. Don does part-time taxidermy work and was interested in seeing those early mounts that dated back eighty or ninety years.
A few days later, John showed Don the Handsaker house. There was an assortment of squirrels, owls, bitterns, loons, pickled snakes, a piranha, and other long-dead animals.
Most intriguing, however, were two large cabinets filled with wild bird eggs. Don was quite excited when he called me after the visit. He said the information in the egg collection revealed that the eggs were from all over the world.
The next time I visited my family in Iowa, John Handsaker wanted me to stop by so I could meet him and see the eggs. The prospect of viewing the collection recalled my own family roots in Story County and rekindled memories of when I first discovered the wonders of Iowa's farmland wildlife.
I was born in Story County in 1946 and grew up on our 132-acre family farm near Zearing—about 10 miles from the Handsaker farmstead. One of my earliest memories of birds on our farm—and the magic of eggs—occurred at the age of seven or eight when my father, Curtis Henderson, told me about a Killdeer nest that he found while cultivating corn in the spring.
It was with considerable excitement that I went out with him to see the nest. As we approached the nest, a Killdeer began fluttering away. My dad explained that it was doing a "broken wing" act. He said that normally a predator would follow a bird that appeared injured and the nest would remain undisturbed. Ignoring the Killdeer's ruse, we continued our search and were soon looking down on four beautifully speckled eggs that were pointed at one end. I was captivated by the beauty of the eggs and the simplicity of the nest—a shallow depression in the soil lined with a few pebbles.
Every day thereafter I made a pilgrimage out to the cornfield to check the nest. About a week later, my persistence paid off. The nest contained eggshell fragments, and I was assaulted from above by the upset Killdeer parents! They screamed their "killdeer-killdeer" calls at me and tried to lead me away with multiple broken-wing acts.
The precocious chicks had left the nest soon after hatching. Knowing the chicks had to be near, I cautiously walked up and down the corn rows and soon discovered one of the cutest baby birds I have ever seen. The little Killdeer was like a brown, black, and white cotton ball with big eyes and toothpick legs. I didn't want to keep the parents from the young, so I quickly left the area after seeing the wonderful little bird.
Environmental consultant Ted Eubanks has a name for wildlife species that are so captivating that they stimulate a lifetime interest in nature—a "portal species." The Killdeer was my portal species.
During those years of growing up on the farm I was captivated by birds. For example, I watched House Wrens nesting in the little nest box that was hung from the eave of the garage by my grandfather, Martin Holland.
I explored nearby brome, alfalfa, and oat fields to see Western Meadowlarks, Bobolinks, Dickcissels, Horned Larks, and Ring-necked Pheasants. In farmstead shrubs I discovered nests of Red-winged Blackbirds, Brown Thrashers, and Gray Catbirds. By the age of eight, I was already drawing pictures of the birds I had seen.
My early interest in wildlife subsequently led me into a career in wildlife conservation as the supervisor of the Nongame Wildlife Program for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Ralph Handsaker was born sixty years before me—in 1886. He also grew up with a keen interest in wildlife. He lived and farmed at the Handsaker homestead near Colo, Iowa, until he passed away in 1969. The Iowa countryside was still fairly "wild" when young Ralph was growing up. There were prairies and wetlands that had not been plowed or drained. Ralph's early life was enriched by the wetland and prairie birds around his farm. Story County still resounded with the booming of Greater Prairie-Chickens, the whistling of Northern Bobwhites, and the strident calling of Marbled Godwits. Sandhill Cranes and Whooping Cranes still nested in northern Iowa when Ralph was born.
Ralph grew up to become a farmer, but he had a ravenous curiosity about and interest in the natural world. He became an excellent wood-carver, a skilled carpenter who made his own furniture, a hunter, fisherman, amateur taxidermist, and an egg collector, or oologist. At the age of twelve, Ralph collected his first set of eggs from the nest of a House Wren—probably at the Handsaker homestead.
With each passing year, Ralph's egg collection grew. He became a skilled naturalist who understood the timing of bird nesting seasons and the habitats where prairie and wetland birds nested. He learned how to collect eggs, blow them out, label them, and record data about the eggs. He built a special wooden cabinet with shallow drawers to hold his collection of bird eggs. For him, oology was a scientifically based hobby and a way of expressing his passion for birds.
David and Danny Handsaker, Ralph's grown grandsons, recall that later in Ralph's life he invited classes of schoolchildren to his farmhouse to show them his egg collection. He liked to tell stories about some of the birds whose eggs were in the collection to encourage the children to appreciate birds.
When Ralph died in 1969, his house was boarded up by the Handsaker family. All of the furnishings were left in place just as they were on the day he passed away. Time stood still in that old farmhouse. His coffee cup was still on the kitchen table thirty-five years later. Two large cabinets containing Ralph's egg collection remained untouched in the living room from 1969 until 2003.
Danny and David each live in separate farmhouses on the Handsaker farm. Danny, who is John Handsaker's father, and brother David began refurbishing the farmhouse for John and his bride-to-be, Shauna, in 2003. That was when John invited my brother Don to stop by to see Ralph's collection of eggs and mounted animals.
Ralph's Eggs: Avian Time Capsules into the Past
In mid-May, I returned to Iowa to be with my family and had the opportunity to meet the Handsakers and see their farmhouse. As John escorted Don and me through the house, he showed us Ralph's old taxidermy mounts. Then he took us to the egg collection. There were two large wooden chests of drawers in Ralph Handsaker's living room. Each was about five feet high and three feet wide, with shallow drawers only two to four inches deep. The first chest had fifteen drawers, the other thirteen. As I pulled out the first drawer, I was amazed to see dozens of small cardboard compartments filled with hundreds of wild bird eggs.
Each compartment contained a set of eggs from a single nest. They were bedded in red cedar sawdust that had kept insect pests out of the egg collection for over a hundred years. Each compartment contained a small label that listed the bird's name, a reference number for that particular species, the number of eggs in the clutch, the date collected, the location where the eggs were collected, and the name of the collector. In many compartments there was also an old Arm and Hammer baking soda trading card illustrating that species of bird.
The top drawers held hundreds of smaller eggs of wrens, chickadees, warblers, and sparrows. The middle drawers were deeper and held larger eggs of ducks, sandpipers, and plovers. The lowest, deepest drawers held the biggest treasures of all—eggs of emus, penguins, geese, cranes, and loons.
The first oological chest of drawers held most of Ralph's egg collection. The second chest held some of Ralph's eggs and the lifetime collection of Ralph's acquaintance, John L. Cole from nearby Nevada, Iowa. Mr. Cole collected eggs from 1903 through 1937. When John Cole passed away, the Cole family gave John's cabinet of eggs to Ralph.
Each chest held thousands of eggs from all over the world. While many eggs had been personally collected by Ralph Handsaker and John Cole, there were hundreds of other collectors' names on the data tags. The tags revealed eggs from forty-four states as well as Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Iceland, Scotland, England, Turkey, Russia, India, Mexico, Antarctica, and Argentina. Oology must have been a fascinating way for people to learn geography because it related birds and their eggs to faraway countries around the world.
The size of the collection, the remarkable amount of detail recorded about the eggs, and the worldwide scope of the collection made it obvious that this was a biological treasure. However, the eggs were more than scientific artifacts. They were beautiful creations, like gems. They showed incredible designs, shapes, and textures that few people ever see up close.
There was an interesting irony associated with the egg collection. Since it is no longer legal to collect wild bird eggs, the eggs could not be sold or traded. The real value of the Handsaker collection is in the scientific information contained with the eggs.
I asked the Handsakers if I could return to transcribe the information on the data cards and photograph the clutches of eggs. The scientist in me wanted to preserve this priceless information so we could benefit from the thousands of hours that Ralph had spent in assembling his collection. Danny, David, and John graciously agreed to let me return to the farmhouse, and thus began my odyssey into the past.
When I began my visits to document the egg collection, the house was still being renovated and thus was unoccupied. The temperatures frequently ran into the nineties, and I dripped with sweat as I carefully removed each set of eggs from the cabinet and placed them on a tray where I could photograph them and write down the data from the information tags. Since there were over 800 sets of eggs, it took six or seven visits to complete the photography and data transcription. As I sat with the old egg collection, the Handsaker brothers and family members sometimes stopped by to watch me work and share stories about their grandfather. They were intrigued by my fascination with the collection, and I think it impressed on them what a special treasure they possessed. By the end of the summer, I felt I had practically become part of their family.
Each time I sat down with the egg collection, the egg cabinets became time machines that transported me back to the era in which the eggs were collected. It was during those hot, sweaty photo sessions that the stories began to emerge.
I realized that the eggs had remarkable stories to tell about the birds that laid them, about the people who collected them, and about the progress in bird conservation that has occurred since the era when those eggs were collected. After many years of silence in the darkness of that abandoned farmhouse, they became "Ralph's Talking Eggs."