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THE CASE OF THE ABSENT EGGS
Clive Gammon
June 24, 1974
A raid on wild birds' nests in Wales gave a Cockney investigator the clue that led to an international chase and certain surprising discoveries in the office of an honored science professor at Yale
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June 24, 1974

The Case Of The Absent Eggs

A raid on wild birds' nests in Wales gave a Cockney investigator the clue that led to an international chase and certain surprising discoveries in the office of an honored science professor at Yale

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The eggs of birds are beautiful. That in itself would be enough to make them desirable things to own. But some of them are also rare, and the combination of beauty and rarity is a tempting one, especially when spiced with illegality. Even though most Western countries have outlawed the taking of wild birds' eggs, especially those of threatened species, there still are obsessed collectors who will risk legal penalties and sometimes their lives in perilous climbs to possess them.

And so each spring a small war is fought out between the forces of conservation and illegal egg collectors in many countries. There are defeats and victories for both sides, but in Britain two springs ago one such clash led to a series of events that has destroyed an international egg-collecting operation directed—in the name of science, to be sure—by a distinguished Yale professor.

In March 1973 a sheet-metal worker named David Neville made a trip to remote hill country in Wales with three other men. Their luggage included coils of rope, climbing irons, a grapnel, wooden boxes lined with foam plastic, some delicate drills and blowpipes. Their purpose was to raid a colony of ravens and take their eggs, and they had successfully accomplished this when they were stopped and searched by police who had been told by local bird watchers that the men were acting suspiciously. Seventeen raven's eggs were found in their car, and the men were duly charged under the Protection of Birds Act. Three months later they were fined a modest $72 apiece.

And there the incident might have ended, but a report of the case found its way to the desk of Richard Porter, Investigations Officer for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, who recalled David Colin Neville, albeit faintly. Richard Porter isn't everyone's idea of a field naturalist or of a detective. He wears his hair long and lank. He has a drooping banditti mustache and his pants are fashionably flared. At 30 he is perhaps one of the first members of the ecogeneration, though instead of expressing just a vague, hippie-like concern with the Earth, he has a very precise objective—to protect the wild birds that first fascinated him as a Cockney kid. There are drawbacks to bird watching where Porter grew up near London's East End, but when he was nine he erected a sign in the backyard saying BIRD CLUB and studied the available robins.

By 1971 he had become full-time investigations officer for the RSPB. He had already made his name as the scourge of the egg stealers in a five-day chase through the Scottish Highlands in pursuit of two men who had raided golden-eagle nests. The men were apprehended as they arrived at a hotel late one night after a day's collecting.

That was his first case. Since then he has carried out more than 200 investigations for the RSPB, almost all of them ending in convictions. But the train of events that began on the Welsh hillside in the spring of last year led to his most significant achievement.

Checking his files, Porter found David Neville's name had cropped up in 1971 in a case in Ontario. The Canadian Wildlife Service had discovered and confiscated some large collections of wild birds' eggs that had been offered for sale. His arrest in Wales indicated Neville was still active in the trade. With a warrant and the help of the police, Porter raided Neville's house in Coventry. "There was a huge collection of eggs there," says Porter, "but we couldn't do anything about it." Under British law if you want to convict an egg bandit, you have to issue the summons within six months of his stealing the eggs, but there wasn't a single diary or data card in Neville's house. Such documents were bound to exist, though. Even little boys label their egg collections. A serious operator like Neville would certainly have a full written record somewhere, with dates and locations.

Repeated questioning by Porter and the police finally broke Neville down. He admitted that he had hidden the records in his grandmother's house, and there they were eventually found under a pile of clothes in a bedroom closet. Neville had carefully documented his trips, and on the basis of correspondence showing he was exchanging eggs he was fined $1,000, and his collection, his climbing equipment and his maps were confiscated. Without a smile, he told the court that he hadn't realized egg collecting was illegal; in future, he planned to take up bird watching.

Porter, meanwhile, had flown to Washington to consult with the U.S. Department of the Interior. With the data cards found under the clothes, he had also discovered a file of letters from the United States. They were dated from Feb. 7, 1972 until close to the time of Neville's encounter with police in Wales the following spring. They were to lead to the seizure of documents at Yale University by special agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and by the end of the investigation it was learned that more than 200 collectors of wild birds' eggs in 64 countries were involved in the case.

The letters Porter discovered were on the Yale University letterhead, specifically from the office of the director of the Peabody Museum, and were signed by the director himself, Professor Charles G. Sibley, one of the most reputable of U.S. ornithologists, second vice-president of the American Ornithologists' Union and in 1970-71 the recipient of that organization's Brewster Memorial Award for, according to the citation, "his outstanding work during the previous 10 years on North American birds." There were also a number of consignment notes. One recorded the dispatch to Neville of eggs of the American rough-legged hawk marked "Return of your loan," somewhat of a surprise in view of geographical considerations.

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