Saving the birds and the planet

Biologist carries on museum’s legacy of avian advocacy



CATALOGING AND RESEARCH—At left, René Corado is the collections manager at the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology in Camarillo.

CATALOGING AND RESEARCH—At left, René Corado is the collections manager at the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology in Camarillo.

With more than 1 million bird eggs and 18,000 nests, the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology is the largest collection of its kind in the United States.

Collections manager René Corado finds one display to be the most awe-inspiring: the resplendent quetzal.

The iridescent green plumage of the national bird of Guatemala, Corado’s home country, is embroidered on his jacket.

Corado, a field biologist, has worked at the Camarillo-based museum and research institution for more than four decades, joining in its commitment to conservation.

“Since I was a kid I have loved nature, so I love what I do in the museum and what I do in the field,” Corado said.

The foundation was established in 1956 by Ed Harrison in the form of a private museum he built behind his Brentwood home. Harrison, a businessman and wildlife photographer, viewed his avian collection as a conservation tool rather than a hobby.

The nonprofit moved to 439 Calle San Pablo, Camarillo, in 1992.

Above, eggs from various seabirds are on display inside the bird museum on Calle San Pablo. Photos by MICHAEL COONS/Acorn Newspapers

Above, eggs from various seabirds are on display inside the bird museum on Calle San Pablo. Photos by MICHAEL COONS/Acorn Newspapers

Though Harrison died 10 years later, Corado said, the founder’s legacy is everlasting.

By working for Harrison as one of the foundation’s gardeners, Corado regained the connection to nature he’d felt as a child in the village of El Chical.

One day, with the help of a translator, he asked Harrison what it meant to be a biologist.

“He said, ‘We try to save the planet and we try to save the birds,’” Corado said. “And I said, ‘I love birds’ and asked him how to become a biologist.”

Harrison encouraged Corado— who had recently left Guatemala to escape the civil war—to pursue his dreams: learn English, earn a high school diploma and college degree, and become a biologist.

Almost everything he knows today, Corado said, is because of Harrison.

The collection Corado has curated and cataloged attracts researchers from across the globe.

The eggs can reveal the effects of climate change and pesticides, while the nests can uncover past and present habitats, he said.

Also stored in the facility are 56,000 study skins, most of which Corado has prepared.

“I prepare the skin to honor the bird,” he said. “I bring it to life again, so it’s not going to waste.”

Using the specimens, he provides researchers with material they can extract DNA from to track the bird’s evolution.

A large portion of Corado’s time is spent in the field.

René Corado, the collections manager at the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, opens trays of eggs from sea birds.

The collections manager partners with Executive Director Linnea Hall and about 20 other field biologists.

The foundation has conducted bird species research around the world, but a primary study area since 2010 has been the Santa Clara River.

The group monitors threatened bird species, including the least Bell’s vireo, and shares the data they collect with other conservation agencies. The agencies restore the animals’ habitat by replacing invasive plants with native ones in hopes of recovering the population.

The project, Corado said, has been successful.

“They are nesting right away, so that is the rewarding part,” he said.

Corado also finds it rewarding to host tours for students, especially those who have immigrated to the United States.

He discusses far more with the children than collections and conservation.

The Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology contains thousands of specimens of birds, eggs and their nests.

“I introduce them to their new world—their new country—and tell them that education is the key to open the door to their dreams,” Corado said. “I am one of them, and they identify with me.”

Beginning in July, the museum will extend its summer hours for tours.

To learn more about the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, go to wfvz.org or email rene@wfvz.org.

Makena Huey is on Twitter @MakenaHuey.