A Rare Encounter with Nests (A LOT of Nests)
Updated: Dec 28, 2019
Photos by David Moskowitz
Early this month, Dave, Matt and I had the privilege of visiting The Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology (“The Bird Museum”) in Camarillo, California. We were warmly welcomed by Dr. Linnea Hall, Executive Director, and Renè Corado, Collections Manager, along with other friendly and supportive staff. They’re a great crew, and we left inspired not only by their dedication to caring for such a monumental collection, but by how hard they work to make it accessible to so many, from school kids to researchers… it’s an incredible educational service. They also run extensive conservation research projects in California and abroad. Check out their website to learn more… and if you can, please offer a little support! The work they do is so important. WFZV
The WFVZ is a jaw-dropping kind of place. We weren’t sure exactly what to expect, but when Renè led us into the warehouse-sized building and flipped the lights on early one morning, we were immediately overwhelmed by the sheer extent of what is held within its walls. Glass cases filled with the eggs of dozens of species showcase their unique colors and patterns. Nests, from hummingbirds to herons, are displayed atop the endless lines of shelves and metal cabinets. All are guarded over by rows and rows of birds.
What is immediately visible upon entry (and wildy impressive) is just a hint of what the WFVZ actually contains: the museum has the largest egg and nest collection in the world, housing more than one million eggs and over 18,000 nests.
What does all this mean to three guys writing a nest guide? Our sense of nests, their design, their size and heft, their materials—their pure physicality—completely transformed in a matter of hours. Imagine this: say you’ve never seen a Ruby-crowned Kinglet nest (we hadn’t), a beautiful little globular structure made largely of moss. Mosey on over to the right cabinet, open it up, pull out a drawer… and voila! With much exclamation and careful inspection, you’ve suddenly laid eyes on dozens of them, some of which may have been collected a hundred years or more ago. Nests are tagged with dates, species name, and the place from which they came. Interestingly, many locales have been altered so much that a given species may no longer nest there. The stark history lesson, both in human and ecological terms, was often as poignant as looking at the nests themselves.
Over and over we opened drawers to check our written descriptions and to note similarities or differences among family groups to strengthen our accounts and make them more useful in the field. There were so many species that we’d dreamed of seeing: Piñon Jay, a Hooded Oriole nest "pop riveted" to a palm leaf, Least Flycatcher, Townsend’s Warbler, and countless others; every architectural work of each species was stunning and awe-inspiring and added to our growing perception of nestness, and to our overarching admiration for birds.
A week later in the desert of west Texas, the experience again proved its depth. My examination of dozens of Loggerhead Shrike nests allowed for immediate recognition of an old one during a wildlife training I was running. The small oak it was tucked within was decorated profusely with impaled, disembodied heads of Jerusalem crickets, too, but still the group and I were thrilled to know the maker of the nest with certainty by its features, and to marvel at the sturdy design.
We’re so excited to return for a more intensive visit this April. We want this book to provide for others what this whole process has been providing for us: a better ability to peel back the layers and complexities of bird nest identification, by applying a new tools that illuminate similarities or differences among the nests of related species, or across various families. Positive I.D is not always possible (an understatement), but it sure is satisfying to begin to learn the nests of birds in an area, which families look alike, key features to look for, and who to check specifically for more clues. The WFZV collection will be essential in refining that component of the book, and we are grateful for such a phenomenal resource, and to the good folks that make it possible.