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Top Ornithology Program Coming Out of Its Shell

September 09, 2002|DAVID KELLY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The hornbills are stiff as battle-axes, the ostriches sit folded like bath towels, and the shimmering green quetzals lie resplendent in drawers reeking of mothballs.

Tray after tray, row after row, the birds and their eggs stretch across the 22,000 square feet of this featureless warehouse on the dusty outskirts of Camarillo, home of the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, one of the largest and perhaps least-known ornithology collections in the world.

Penguins, condors, kiwis, birds of paradise and even extinct species such as the heath hen and Carolina parakeet peer up from drawers or look down from the ceiling.

Eggs--more than a million of them--are everywhere. Only the British Museum of Natural History has as many.

"From the egg point of view, it's the best there is," said Joseph Forshaw, an ornithologist and renowned parrot expert who flew in from Australia last week just to examine the foundation's collection of trogons--a lesser-known relative of the quetzal--for an upcoming book.

"In most of my work, the specimens come from this collection," Forshaw said.

Along with a million eggs, 53,000 skins and 8,000 books, the foundation houses 18,000 nests--the largest such collection in the world.

Started in 1956 by a handful of adventurous, occasionally swashbuckling egg collectors, the foundation has always kept a low profile, opening itself primarily to scientists.

So far, it has participated in more than 3,000 research projects.

Its collections helped prove that DDT caused thinning of brown pelican, peregrine falcon and bald eagle eggshells. That led to $140 million in legal settlements against companies that for years dumped pesticides off the coast of Los Angeles, and foundation scientists also testified in a landmark court battle that led to the banning of DDT in the U.S. in 1972.

"I think most anyone who has done museum-based study on birds has used the collections or wished they had," said Kimball Garrett, foundation board member and ornithology collections manager for the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. "The egg collection is really the only game in town."

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Hatching Higher Profile

While most of its work has been out of the public eye, the foundation's new director, Linnea Hall, hopes to change that.

Hall, a former professor of ornithology and a wildlife biologist, wants to increase fund-raising, create partnerships with academic institutions, boost outreach to schools and offer occasional tours to the public.

"This place is still primarily for hard-core researchers," she said. "But we are raising our profile, slowly."

The nonprofit foundation survives largely on donations. It has just five full-time employees to catalog eggs, prepare skins and mount expeditions around the globe. Money is tight.

Recently, collections manager Rene Corado opened a refrigerator, to reveal dozens of frozen hawks, crows and pheasants.

"We are running out of room," said Corado, who skins the birds, packs them with cotton and labels them.

The foundation is actually a collection of collections.

Lloyd Kiff, the first director of the foundation, set off on an 11,000-mile car journey in 1970 to persuade major collectors to donate their eggs. Of the 20 he visited, all but one agreed. The foundation now has 400 egg collections.

"They had no other destination because public sentiment had turned against egg-collecting," said Kiff, now science director with the Peregrine Fund in Boise, Idaho. "A lot of people in the U.S. who went on to be prominent ornithologists started as egg collectors. The founder of the Audubon Society was an egg collector."

The man behind the Western Foundation, Ed Harrison, was a collector extraordinaire. The Los Angeles millionaire made his money in real estate and oil, but his true passion was amassing things--relics, minerals, animal skins, nests, a shrunken head and especially eggs.

"He collected everything he could get his hands on," said Glenn Hiatt, 89, a longtime friend and foundation board member. "But from the time he was young he loved everything about birds."

Harrison, now 88 and in declining health, was unavailable for comment.

Egg-collecting was a fashionable hobby from the mid-19th century to the 1940s. People bought and traded eggs like baseball cards. Magazines catered to collectors, and oology, or the study of eggs, was popular.

"These guys were unbelievable. They had a sixth sense on where to find bird nests," said John Borneman, a former condor warden in Los Padres National Forest charged with keeping out egg collectors.

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Changing Attitudes

He said one Fillmore collector would lower his 5-year-old daughter over a cliff with a basket to snatch eagle eggs.

Others would literally swing from trees using belts to grab eggs and hold them in their mouths until they got back to the ground.

Collectors were usually amateurs, not scientists, and when laws were passed banning the practice for conservation reasons, they found themselves with thousands of eggs and a public hostile to their hobby.

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