Did you know the world’s largest collection of bird eggs and nests can be found right here in Ventura County? Tucked away in the industrial section of Camarillo is the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology (WFVZ), affectionately called The Bird Museum, and it’s one of the most prestigious institutions for avian biology and conservation. In addition to more than one million eggs and 20,000+ nests, it boasts 55,000 study skins, 600 live mounts, a wide array of teaching materials and an impressive library stocked with books, monographs, journals and even field notes — some dating back to the early 1900s.
The foundation was created in 1956 by a handful of natural historians led by ornithologist and collector Ed N. Harrison, who envisioned it as a research institution. As the collection grew, the quantity and quality of the specimens and research materials brought the WFVZ international acclaim in ornithology circles. “There are 10,000 bird species overall,” explains collections manager René Corado. “We have around 5,000. About half the species of the world are contained in our collection.”
Many of those include rare and extinct species, making the foundation an invaluable resource that draws scientists from across the globe. Study-skins (bird bodies preserved to maintain feather color, wing shape, foot and beak integrity, etc.) will occasionally be lent out, but due to the fragility of eggs and nests, researchers who need to see and handle these items directly have to come to the museum. And they come from all over the world, according to executive director Linnea Hall.
The digital age has made it possible for much of the WFVZ’s information to be shared online as well. Thanks to a 2012 grant from the National Science Foundation, the organization hired a team of biology students to digitize more than 300,000 record cards from the collection. Data such as egg measurements, species, location, collection date and collector is entered into an enormous, searchable database. The database itself contains similar information from several other museums and ornithology organizations, and currently holds data on more than one billion specimens.
Scientists studying the effects of pesticides on wildlife have found the WFVZ to be an invaluable resource. “Bird eggs are a very useful way to gauge contamination,” Hall says. Because the collection includes eggs going back to the 1800s, scientists in the late 1960s and early 1970s were able to measure and compare shell thickness in species exposed to DDT, and determine that the pesticide was causing shell thinning — a realization that contributed to DDT being banned for agricultural use in 1972. Problems from residual DDT remain, and Hall and Corado are involved in ongoing projects that study its impacts on Channel Islands bird species.
While the foundation’s importance as a research institution can’t be overstated, the WFVZ has made an effort to branch out beyond the scientific community in recent years. It was entirely closed to the public until the mid-1990s, and didn’t start to open up in a significant way until Hall, who earned her Ph.D at the University of Arizona in Tucson and taught at CSU Sacramento, joined the foundation as executive director in 2002. “The previous director didn’t have the same emphasis on education that Rene and I do,” Hall explains. Now, in addition to public tours on the last Friday of every month, the foundation offers school and group tours (including bilingual tours) by appointment, study-skin preparation training, internships for college students and even some classes. “We’re trying to bridge the gap between research and museums,” says Hall, “And we hope to encourage people to go into the sciences.” With the digitization project in its last six months, the WFVZ’s next focus will be to create a space dedicated to community outreach. “We would like to have a separate floor that can be used just as a museum,” Corado says. “That way it’s open more to the public.”
The public will have a chance to visit the museum during its 12th Annual Fall Open House on Saturday, Oct.25. Attendees can browse the foundation’s live mounts and library, look at select specimens from the extensive egg and nest collection (including the enormous egg of the now-extinct Elephant Bird) and learn about the history of egg collection and ornithology. Kids can participate in egg blowing “museum style” and nest building activities. It’s a rare opportunity for nearly unfettered access to this world-famous ornithological institution that’s right here in our own backyard.
For more information, visit www.wfvz.org or call 388-9944.