News Column

Take wing to bird eggs exhibit in Santa Paula

May 29, 2014

By Brett Johnson, Ventura County Star, Calif.



May 29--It was a bit like the old days when neighbors would drop in on each other for a chatty visit and take home some eggs when in need.

But Jeanne Orcutt had her choice of more than 1 million eggs -- and these were a far wilder hatch than those grocery aisle Grade As.

Orcutt was searching for a new exhibit to fill space at the California Oil Museum in Santa Paula. She found it, in wow fashion, just down the road in Camarillo at the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, a private nonprofit research foundation that quietly houses the world's largest collection of bird eggs -- more than 1 million of them.

The result is -- pun definitely intended -- the EGGStraordinary EGGSibit at the Santa Paula museum. It features eggs from about four-dozen different bird species, with a couple dinosaur eggs and other exotics thrown in for dazzle purposes.

One big henhouse

The exhibit, which continues through June 15, is distinctly of a local feather. Most of the eggs, around 40, come from birds that can be found in Ventura County.

"We wanted to have bird eggs that are from the local area, for bird watchers and young amateur bird enthusiasts who might say, 'Hey, what's out here? What's out my window?' " Orcutt, the museum's director, explained.

Or if they go hiking or down to the beach and see a bird, maybe they can identify it from seeing the exhibit, she offered.

Almost all of the eggs come from species that breed in the county, said RenÉ Corado, collections manager for the Camarillo foundation. The county, he noted, sports a diverse range of bird species -- from the tiny Anna's hummingbird to the large California condor and its grand 10-foot wingspan.

As Corado put it, the Santa Paula people "also wanted some exotic 'wow' eggs." So he supplied them with eggs from an elephant bird (extinct), a moa (extinct), an ostrich, an emu and a rhea.

"These are just for fun," Orcutt said. "The elephant bird egg is just gigantic."

Enough to cause a three-egg omelet to turn green with envy. An elephant bird egg can be more than 3 feet around and more than a foot long.

It all started when she visited the foundation, which has been tucked away in a nondescript Camarillo office park for the past 22 years.

"I went there for a tour and I came out thinking, 'Wow, this place is amazing,' " Orcutt recalled. "And the knowledge they have there is something else."

In addition to the 1 million-plus eggs (from some 4,000 different species globally), the foundation also houses more than 20,000 old nests and more than 56,000 bird skins.

Orcutt asked if she could display some of those eggs, expecting to get a "no." But public education and outreach is another thing the foundation does, Corado noted.

Moving them in was a lesson in fragility; this wasn't the hurried crack of a shell on a frying pan rim on a workday morning.

For one thing, the bird egg shells are all hollowed out. And they are supersensitive, as Orcutt learned.

"I have long nails and RenÉ told me, 'Don't pick them up with those nails,' " she said, laughing at the memory.

Corado taught her to pour the eggshells into her cupped hand, or on to a swatch of cotton -- which is how they have them on display at the museum, under glass.

"I've displayed many things over the years," Orcutt said, "but nothing ever this delicate."

Bird fodder for the brain

The exhibit room features three wall murals that sweep the viewer through the various habitats in Ventura County -- from left to right, ocean-shoreline then coastal-inland-woodland and finally mountain-scrubland.

Display cases with eggs that are found in each respective nook of nature are located below them. Various bird calls are piped in through the sound system.

The walls are littered with bird information cards -- all brightly colored, nicely offset and easy to read -- detailing their habitat, measurements and a few facts.

Here, we learn that a peregrine falcon can divebomb prey at speeds of around 200 mph -- take that, Indy car!

Acorn woodpeckers store their precious nuts by drilling holes in a single tree that by the end of autumn may have 50,000 holes in it, each filled with an acorn. Those birds picking off moths and insects as seen on televised sporting events are likely American kestrels, birds that often perch on stadium light standards or foul poles or goal posts.

The red-tailed hawk has a thrilling, raspy scream that's a Hollywood favorite; that shrill soundtrack cry directors love frequently comes from this common hawk.

"Egghead" trivia on the walls offers a question at the top of a drawn egg with the answer under a flap below. Sample: Hard-shell eggs are mostly made of what? Answer: Calcium carbonate, the same material as chalk and pearls. We also learn that a bald eagle's nest can be 12 feet deep, at least 10 feet across and easily weigh more than a ton.

A bone to pick with dinosaurs

The fun also includes four miscellaneous eggs that came from Santa Barbara City College -- from a king penguin, a brown kiwi and two dinosaurs, the allosaurus (late Jurassic period, some 150 million years ago) and the hypselosaurus (late Cretaceous period, around 70 million years ago).

Those last two might seem far-fetched. But a museum placard notes that while crocodiles and alligators are among their closest living relatives, these carnivorous dinosaurs have an even closer group of modern relatives with whom they share physical traits -- birds. Among other things, they have similar skeletons.

That's quite a lineage for these bundles of feathers. These days, birds are faring OK, Corado said. More and more chemicals are showing up in birds and more trash winds up in their nests, but it's not all bad news. He noted they get support from the Nature Conservancy, Audubon Society and other groups.

"They need help, always," he said, "but they're not that bad off."

Orcutt needed little convincing that this batch of shells was a blend of entertainment and knowledge worth showing.

"I thought spring eggs let's do it," she said.

___

(c)2014 Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.)

Visit Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.) at www.vcstar.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services


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Source: Ventura County Star (CA)


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