The Western Foundation for Vertebrate Zoology in Camarillo, Calif., houses one of the largest collections of birds eggs and nests in the world. As part of our summer road trip collaboration with Atlas Obscura, we explore the collection and meet the scientists who run the foundation.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
When Dylan Thuras was mapping out his summer road trip, he marked a location in Camarillo, Calif., in an office park. Thuras is the co-founder of the website Atlas Obscura which catalogs the world's hidden wonders. The tip for this hidden wonder came from photographer Rosamond Purcell. She left Dylan a voicemail saying he had to go to the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology.
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ROSAMOND PURCELL: I have so many things to say about it, but they don't have that many visitors. And you have to make an appointment ahead of time.
CHANG: So Dylan made an appointment, and here he is with the latest story from our summer road trip series with Atlas Obscura.
DYLAN THURAS, BYLINE: The Western Foundation is about an hour outside of Los Angeles. It's a smooth, off-white building that might as well be an insurance office. But when we enter...
RENE CORADO: And please follow me here.
THURAS: ...We move from nondescript to a riot of natural history.
LINNEA HALL: Yeah.
THURAS: This is amazing.
There are taxidermy birds everywhere I look, and they're perched in cases on 900 white specimen cabinets. And inside each cabinet are eggs.
HALL: More than a million individual eggs.
THURAS: That's Dr. Linnea Hall. She's the executive director here, and it's obvious that she loves her job.
HALL: We're kind of, like, constantly kids in a candy store. Yes, it's very nice.
THURAS: The same goes for her partner at the foundation, collections manager Rene Corado. He wears a brimmed hat, the kind with strings that tie together under the neck.
CORADO: They say, don't put all the eggs in one basket, but we did.
THURAS: They're both in their 50s, and they interact with the kind of ease you have with someone you've worked with for many years. When I walk in, they're both geeking out over this wooden cabinet donated by the family of a deceased egg collector. Egg collecting was once a common hobby for self-styled naturalists and private collectors.
CORADO: Here you see that we have from 1897 brown pelican eggs. They're really very important because birds before DDT.
THURAS: DDT - that was an insecticide banned in the U.S. in the 1970s, and it was banned in no small part because of studies done on eggs, including some housed in the Western Foundation. Today Dr. Hall says eggs are revealing how climate change is affecting bird populations by the egg size, the nest location and other data. She says that they're learning more and more from eggs all the time.
HALL: Oh, gosh, so there's toxicology. There's behavior. There's physiology. There's evolution. There's taxonomy. There is a wealth of subject matter.
THURAS: Just about every egg you can imagine is in here, and the eggs are all hollow. They're drained of their contents through a small hole drilled into the bottom. There are round owl eggs, chalky cuckoo eggs, multicolored tinamou eggs...
HALL: Even green eggs.
THURAS: ...Pointy eggs, shiny eggs, tiny eggs, big eggs.
CORADO: This is the elephant bird egg.
THURAS: Oh, my...
CORADO: Yeah, so this is the largest egg that ever exist.
THURAS: That elephant bird egg - it's the size of a watermelon.
HALL: I mean, a bird's body created these, you know? That's pretty phenomenal. I wish I could create an egg.
THURAS: Dr. Hall and Rene Corado do everything in the foundation from huge research projects to field expeditions to helping vacuum.
HALL: We work really well together, and his passion and exuberance and stuff is awesome.
CORADO: The academic and the crazy guy from the field (laughter), so...
THURAS: You make a good team.
CORADO: Yeah, we make a good team.
THURAS: On one collecting trip in rural Guatemala, Corado climbed a cactus and carried down a pair of eggs in his mouth. How do you climb a cactus, you ask.
CORADO: Carefully (laughter).
THURAS: As they take me through the collection, they tell me another story of a momentous trip where Corado's personal story and the foundation's mission came together and impacted a river in Guatemala. It was back in 2002, when they'd only been working together for about a month, and they took their first business trip.
HALL: One of our ornithological science meetings in Louisiana.
THURAS: They caught a small commuter plane to New Orleans and ended up flying into Tropical Storm Isidore.
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WARREN MADDEN: Tropical Storm Isidore is making landfall at this time. The biggest threat from Isidore...
HALL: There wasn't that big a plane, I recall. And it jumped around quite a bit. And I know that Rene, in particular, felt like, OK, this is the end.
CORADO: I thought we'll die. And I really, really - I thought that the plane will crash.
THURAS: Up until this point, Rene Corado had been carrying a secret with him.
CORADO: I didn't - I never told my wife or my kids. But because I will die anyway, I told Linnea. And she started taking notes. And so she said, Rene, you have to write a book. You have to write a book to show people that there is hope.
THURAS: Corado's secret was simple. He was ashamed of a childhood spent in poverty in Guatemala, eating from the trash and working as a shoeshine boy. At 21, fearful for his life, he made his way to the U.S. He worked as a cook, a housecleaner until he got a job as a gardener at the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology.
CORADO: Gardening is not bad. I mean, I love it. But I didn't want to be just a gardener.
THURAS: He would scarf down his lunch and run over to watch the biologists at work. The founder noticed.
CORADO: And I said, yeah, yeah, I want to be a biologist. I don't speak English. I only have sixth-grade schooling, but, yes. And he said, oh, it's no problem. You can just learn English. And then you have to take regular classes. Then you become a biologist, no problem. And I said, sure, yeah.
THURAS: Corado got his immigration papers through in 1986 Ronald Reagan amnesty program. He went to night school to learn English, got his high school degree and graduated first in his class, took ornithology classes by mail from Cornell. And he got his degree in biology from Oxnard College.
CORADO: And now I am the collections manager of the place where I was the gardener. So I think life is good.
THURAS: And over the course of the next decade, Dr. Hall helped him write that book about his life.
HALL: But I see it all as him. I was just the conduit.
THURAS: Corado published "El Lustrador," or "The Shoeshine Boy," in English and later in Spanish. It was a surprise hit, and it got a lot of attention in Guatemala...
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).
THURAS: ...Including from the Guatemalan government. For years, Corado and Dr. Hall have been collecting eggs along the longest river in Guatemala. They discovered that the eggs were full of heavy metals and other toxins and had been trying to get the government to pay attention to these reports - how they showed that both eggs and people along the river were being exposed.
CORADO: And nobody listened to us - nobody.
THURAS: But his book - the story of his rise from a shoeshine boy to the manager of one of the world's greatest egg collections - it broke through in a way the reports hadn't.
HALL: That I'm very, very happy of because it spurred all of these other changes, not just for him and his family, but, of course, for Guatemala even.
THURAS: Today there are plans to build treatment plants all along the river. For Dr. Linnea Hall and Rene Corado, it's an example of the possibility that lies within each drawer of eggs.
HALL: And these are the ones that look the most like chocolate, so these are the ones that everybody loves to see 'cause they're pretty phenomenal.
THURAS: While the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology might not look like much from the outside, go in, and you'll find specimens as rare as can be. For NPR News, I'm Dylan Thuras in Camarillo, Calif.
(SOUNDBITE OF NO EM PINGO D'AGUA'S "SALVADOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.