The New Local Yokels : Science: A research foundation houses the world's largest collection of eggs and nests in a Camarillo industrial park after moving from L.A.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The largest collection of bird eggs on the planet--from the tiny hummingbird egg to the watermelon-sized egg laid by the extinct "elephantbird"--has settled into a new natural-history research center at a Camarillo industrial park.

The Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, which moved to Camarillo from Los Angeles County last year, also claims the world's largest collection of nests. Some are the size of a child's fist, while one eagle's nest is large enough for an adult to curl up inside for a nap.

Thanks to the Victorian-era popularity of the hobby known as oology, much of the collection is more than 100 years old. Some eggs in the collection, like the elephantbird egg and the condor eggs, are thousands of years old.

The foundation also boasts 51,000 preserved birds.

Most have been laid side by side in drawers inside gleaming white rows of so-called specimen cabinets. Some of the larger birds of prey are mounted, their talons clutching tree limbs and their marble eyes staring ahead.

Though intended primarily for research, the collection is open to the public by appointment. Lloyd Kiff, director of the foundation, said the specimens offer an ornithological documentary of centuries past.

"Each eggshell reflects the environmental conditions at a particular place in time," said Kiff, a wildlife biologist. "It's like a library. It's a history."

Daniel Taylor, a spokesman for the National Audubon Society, said the collection provides a glimpse of what life was like "in a more undisturbed state. It's a great way to look back in time."

Before moving to Camarillo last year, the foundation's specimens, which include 300 separate collections, were scattered among three locations in West Los Angeles. The foundation began looking for a new location in the San Fernando Valley and worked its way north to Camarillo before finding a suitable location.

But Kiff said the foundation hopes to eventually move to a more "campus-like setting," with oak trees and more natural surroundings than the industrial park can provide.

Kiff, who led the Condor Recovery Team that captured the California condor and reintroduced it to the wild, said the foundation made its greatest contribution to avian life in 1971.

That was the year it provided samples of crushed pelican eggshells, showing how the widespread use of the pesticide DDT had thinned the shells to the point that several species were near extinction.

The following year, the federal government banned DDT.

"That saved more birds than any other single act," Kiff said.

The pesticide, which can still be found among tissues form nearly all bird species, is blamed for significant population declines in at least 10% of the Earth's bird species, Kiff said.

The foundation's collections, which also include 8,000 books and 400 journals, draw scientists from around the world.

"We had a guy here from Scotland last week because this is the best collection," Kiff said.

Started in 1956 by Los Angeles businessman Ed Harrison, the foundation is currently funded by grants, endowments and donations. Kiff has been its director since 1968.

Located in an industrial area off Pleasant Valley Road, the research center is distinguished from neighboring businesses by the feathered faces that peer out its windows.

Once inside, a visitor walks beyond the office area and into the "range," a room of 17,000 square feet with countless rows of chest-high white specimen cabinets. One 200-foot-long wall is a seascape mural with painted pelicans gliding above the waves.

Overhead, a stuffed eagle chases a flock of ducks headed toward the painted ocean to escape their pursuer.

On another wall, a flock of male mallards flies in V formation while chasing a pair of female ducks. The male mallard is known for its aggressiveness during mating.

Among the most celebrated occupants of the drawers are the elephantbird eggs. The creature, which could not fly, weighed more than a ton and was up to 12 feet tall. Although it is believed the bird may have lived in Madagascar as recently as the 17th Century, Kiff said the eggs at the foundation are probably thousands of years old, preserved by their extraordinarily thick shells.

Kiff muses about going to Madagascar to probe the "oral history" of the elephantbird among the island's natives.

A condor egg in the collection that was taken from a cave in the Grand Canyon dates to the Pleistocene Era, a 2-million-year period that ended 11,000 years ago.

The research center is more than just a repository for the collections.

Biologists on the seven-member staff are currently performing a survey of endangered species for the U.S. Navy at Point Mugu.

The center has also worked with the San Diego Zoo to begin a captive breeding program for the shrike, a small songbird found on San Clemente Island that was the rarest of endangered birds a few years ago, when only about five pairs remained. The population has rebounded to 50 or 60 birds, Kiff said.

Kiff hopes to establish a program that would allow high school students interested in the field to study or do research at the center. Already, artists are drawn to the foundation so that they can view a wild animal's features up close, Kiff said.

"It's a very valuable resource," said David Ledig, a wildlife biologist who works with the Condor Recovery Program. For example, researchers have been able to compare recently laid eggs with ancient eggs.

"It's just an incredibly large and valuable database," Ledig said.

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