Confessions of an Egg Thief - Mick Conway reflects on his fondest childhood memories and the decline of nature

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For many of us Spring is our favourite season.

The darkest days of mid-winter are a distant memory as we look forward to longer days.

The rising temperature melts the last of the snow, lifting spirits. The natural world begins its miracle of renewal. In my childhood spring had an extra attraction, it was the nesting season.

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From the previous summer we looked forward to when the birds began to sing, build their nests and lay their eggs.


These eggs were what we stole from the nests. Using a pin to make a hole at both ends we blew out their contents. The aim was to collect as many different species as possible. We kept the eggs in boxes lined with cotton wool and showed our collections to other enthusiasts.

Collecting football cards is a similar obsession in which many small boys indulge. The problem with my hobby was the obvious damage it did to wildlife.

In our more enlightened times the practice has died out, not least because it is completely illegal. Even then we realized what we were doing was very suspect but we were governed by certain self- imposed ethics.

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We only took one egg from a nest. Once we had one sample of a species we left the others alone. As with the football cards finding rarities meant adding to the collection became more difficult over time.

Wallsend on the banks of the River Tyne.Wallsend on the banks of the River Tyne.
Wallsend on the banks of the River Tyne.

This confession may surprise people who know me as someone who has been involved in environmental education over a long period, advocating the preservation of biodiversity among other environmental issues.

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However, egg collection is different from collecting football cards where the only ‘skill’ involved is pestering your parents for money to buy the cards in pursuit of that ever-diminishing final piece.

Finding birds’ nests required a combination of book learning and observational skills that could not be found in school education. We would be initiated into this cult by older children who would show us the secrets of where to find the nests.

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The SkylarkThe Skylark
The Skylark

Eventually this led in my case to an interest in all manner of wildlife which I have been happy to pass on to anybody prepared to listen.

I was brought up in a town called Wallsend near Newcastle. It would be difficult to find a place less suitable for egg collection or indeed any aspect of wildlife.

The industrial revolution had obliterated every aspect of nature. The River Tyne was a polluted sewer. The urban landscape of tightly packed terraces ran down from the mines to the huge shipyard.

Perhaps this extreme form of natural deprivation led to my own obsession with all things natural. Looking for eggs was restricted to parks and areas that were nothing more than industrial wastelands but for us were places of huge interest.

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Gull eggsGull eggs
Gull eggs

We did have certain advantages over modern day children. We were allowed to wander on any given day as much as three miles from home.

The fear of ‘Stranger Danger’ was not as acute as it is today and traffic less threatening. We roamed in little gangs of children of mixed ages learning a lot, good and not so good, from older children in our neighbourhood.

Children today are far more restricted and unfortunately miss out on this valuable less formal education.

School education did contribute to our interests. Our favourites were Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Inspired by their adventures, we built a raft made of oil cans and planks.

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We hoped to use it to approach a swan’s nest at the edge of a lake formed by water pumped from a coal mine. Any hopes of copying Tom and Huck were quickly dashed.

Mick Conway.Mick Conway.
Mick Conway.

We launched our raft through the ooze of coal dust only to find that it bobbed happily above the water only to sink as soon as we stepped aboard. Paddling around up to our knees in freezing water did not compare to the Mississippi.

Every form of the wildlife I took for granted as a child has been diminished. The birds, flowers and insects have seen massive reductions.

They have been assaulted by pesticides, factory farming, pollution and global warming. This disaster is worldwide and holds true for Ireland and Europe.

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It would still be possible to find some of the eggs in my collection today but others would be very difficult to find.

Children today are aware of the fate of the dinosaurs but less likely to know that local birdlife has effectively gone down the same extinction road.

House sparrows, once the most common town bird, have drastically reduced.

You would search a long while to find a yellow hammer nest which I once found under every gorse. The yellow hammer is a small brown bird with a yellow breast. It sings its strange song which seems to say a ‘little bit of bread and cheese’ but you will rarely hear its odd song today.

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We had our own name for it, a ‘scribbley jack’. We were more familiar with its eggs with ‘scribbles’ on the shells than with the bird.

The fate of ground nesting birds is perhaps the worst. We found sky larks nests in any open field. Its high-level song, the inspiration for many poems, has all but ceased, no longer alerting us of the wonder of spring.

Wandering about we chanced on lapwing eggs in a scrape in the ground that served as a nest. They too have joined the ranks of the endangered.

The last mine in Wallsend closed in the sixties, the shipyard in the nineties. Many of the old terraces have been replaced by modern housing, with wonder of wonders, indoor toilets. I moved to Derry in 1973. For good or ill, my memories as an egg thief remain among my fondest.

My childhood days bring sad reflections

Of happy days spent long ago

My childhood friends and my own relations

Have all passed on now like the melting snow

(Carrickfergus, traditional song)

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