The Great Duck Egg Fake
During the final decades of the nineteenth century, large-scale hunting, driven by the expansion of the railroad and the invention of better guns, was threatening much of the nation's wildlife. As a consequence, there was a growing sense that something needed to be done to protect and preserve the nation's wild animal populations. An early conservation movement coalesced around a campaign to save the nation's birds, whose populations were under pressure because of the fashionability of hats decorated with feathers. The Audobon Society and the American Ornithological Union were both formed out of this campaign.
The campaign to save the birds was given renewed determination in the early 1890s when a report began to appear in various publications, such as the Northwest Sportsman of Oregon and the Sportsmen's Review of Chicago, that millions of waterfowl eggs were being collected in breeding grounds in Alaska and then shipped east for sale. The eggs, it was reported, were a source of dried albumen which was used in a variety of commercial applications such as photography, the manufacture of leather, and candy-making. The magazines warned that the collection of these eggs threatened the existence of the duck and geese populations of the entire west.
The duck egg scare soon reached congress. On January 26, 1895 Senator John H. Mitchell of Oregon spoke to the Senate and declared that the egging was a corporate plot. He said that, "It is a fact, that... certain corporations have been formed and large amounts of capital invested for the purpose of gathering in these breeding grounds and packing and shipping annually vast millions of the eggs of these ducks and geese." Mitchell also asserted that on the Canadian Pacific Railway "not infrequently as many as 1,000, 1,200, and as high as 1,800 barrels of these eggs are forwarded in one train of cars." He asked for an investigation into the egging, to pave the way for legislation designed to protect the eggs of wildfowl.
The New York Tribune published Mitchell's speech, and the Oregon legislative assembly petitioned Congress to endorse his call for an investigation. But on June 22, 1895 the editors of Forest and Stream exposed the duck egg scare to be nothing more than a hoax, or, in their words, "an unmitigated fake." They had conducted an investigation into the story and had found that neither the railways nor the custom collectors had any records of wildfowl eggs being shipped from Alaska. Furthermore, the nation's largest importer of albumen, Klipstein & Company, knew nothing about Alaskan eggs. They obtained their eggs from Europe.
Forest and Stream suggested that the duck egg story may have been invented as a red herring to distract the American public from the real cause of the decline in bird populationsoverhunting. If this was the case, then the diversionary tactic did not succeed, as in the following decades a large amount of legislation was passed regulating hunting and protecting the nation's wildlife.
The duck egg story lingered on in the popular imagination for a while, reappearing a few months later in a story in the New York Times, before it disappeared completely.