The Most Perfect Thing:
Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg
Bloomsbury USA, 2016
I was a bit swamped by new, amazing bird information a couple of years ago when I read Bird
Sense, an earlier Tim Birkhead book. This new
book, The Most Perfect Thing, is just as good,
and it’s shorter, so the reader isn’t waterlogged
by the end.
Birkhead has studied guillemots for more than
30 years on Skomer, a rocky island off the coast
of Wales. These seabirds (called “murres” on this
side of the Atlantic) lay eggs that are endlessly
variable in both shape and decoration. That oddity
started the author on his study of what he calls
“an independent, self-contained embryo development system.” The book describes how bird eggs
are fertilized, how shells are made and colored,
and how microbes are kept at bay, going on to
track the incubation and hatching of a chick.
If you are at all like me, you may have misled
many friends and acquaintances by telling them
that the reason for the pointy silhouette of seabirds’ pyriform (pear-shaped) eggs is so that they
roll in circles on rocky ledges instead of falling
into the sea. This book will put an end to that tale
– and many other questionable beliefs.
The most studied eggs, of course, are those
laid by chickens – but Birkhead explains the
development of all kinds of eggs, from the five-gram goldcrest egg to the three-pound ostrich
egg, which, as a percentage of the bird’s body
weight, is among the smallest.
The membrane that you see when you peel a
hardboiled egg is the egg’s first covering – it’s a
mat of fibers that can expand, and it is formed
before the egg arrives at the uterus. The uterus is
also called the shell gland, and it’s there that what
he calls “paint guns” spray on calcium carbonate.
Simon & Schuster, 2016
You may well remember Annie Proulx’s first book,
The Shipping News – a bestseller adapted to film,
or her story “Brokeback Mountain,” which became
an Oscar-winning movie. In Barkskins, Proulx, 81
– still brilliant and lively – tells us all she knows
about the fate of the trees in North America.
Starting at the time the French arrived with iron
axes, her reach over the next three-plus centuries
and the research behind it are astounding, if a bit
too much. (The book stretches for 700 pages.)
But before reading more, search your shed or
cellar for a rusting axe your ancestors may have
left behind. Find a tree you’d planned to cut with
a chainsaw, and with your axe, try to fell the tree.
Most of us won’t even get through the felling cut
before getting tuckered out. Now, imagine trees
– covering the millions of acres from here to the
prairies and tundra – being cut by axes. Those not
cut for lumber were girdled, pulled down after their
roots rotted, or burned. Smoke filled the skies over
vast areas of the continent. The advent of crosscut
saws and chainsaws sped the process.
In her rambling novel, Proulx follows the families
of Mi’kmaq, French, and English woodsmen as
they branch out over a score of generations
around the Atlantic coast, up its rivers, then west,
directly and indirectly sending millions of logs
down streams to ports or railroad spurs where
ships and trains took them away. The businessmen among them left their axes behind and
became woodmongers on a devastating scale.
Because of hybridization and the forceful
imposition of new acquisitive cultures, the Mi’kmaq
and other Native Americans who depended on
forests disappeared within a few generations.
Their miseries are the sad networks that tie
Proulx’s chapters together. Their descendants still
Next, another group of aerosols sprays on the
color coat, and then a final layer of proteins that
protect the surface is applied. He likens the final
layer to the wax you might put on your car.
Even with all those layers, there is air exchange.
Part of the embryo’s network of blood vessels lies
outside the body, under the eggshell, and these
blood vessels collect oxygen and release carbon
dioxide. As the embryo develops, it metabolizes;
an egg, regardless of its size, loses about 15 percent of its initial weight during incubation. And the
eggshell is thinner at hatching because the chick
has taken some calcium for its skeleton.
Far from being just a colorless blob, the albumen, or egg white, is a “biochemical firewall”
against microbes. There are more than 100 antimicrobial proteins in albumen, and few nutrients.
The nutrients are locked up by certain types of
protein, which make them inaccessible to bacteria. Plus, albumen supplies water and acts as a
cushion for the growing embryo.
Precocial birds, the ones that walk around
and find their own food just hours after hatching, come from eggs that have more yolk and
less albumen, but why this is so is a mystery. A
kiwi egg is 80 percent yolk by weight and, at the
opposite extreme, a northern gannet egg’s yolk
accounts for 15 percent of the whole egg.
You may think that by now, I’ve run through all
the high points of the book, but I haven’t. Much
more of what’s going on inside (and outside) an
egg is revealed.
Even if you don’t read The Most Perfect Thing,
I recommend trying the book’s suggestion of
putting a chicken egg into a jar of vinegar for 48
hours or so to see what happens. It’s egg-laying
in reverse, and for me, at least, it’s well worth
sacrificing an egg. Even our egg-loving dog
wouldn’t eat the end result.