FINDING GOLD AT THE MUSEUM

   

CAScondordiorama

  I said in Chapter 22* that I didn’t have any really scary adventures as a California condor researcher. I just remembered one. We were in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on our way to the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. Sally and I had borrowed her mother’s VW Beetle, and had so far navigated 20 miles of Massachusetts highway from Boxford to Boston, including the Mystic River Bridge and a couple of rotaries. (Rotaries, traffic circles, are those diabolical intersections unknown to Westerners unless they live in Long Beach, which were built to control the flow of traffic and which were already dangerously obsolete when “rush hour” involved half a hundred vehicles, not half a million.) I hadn’t enjoyed any of the trip so far, but now I was stymied. We were at an intersection where it seemed like dozens of roads came together. I think it was really only nine or ten, but in my mind it might well have been a hundred. Either number would have been equally baffling to me. The roads came in at all angles, none of them had stop or yield signs or any other type of traffic control, and every driver was proceeding as if the right-of-way had been God-granted to him or her. To a Westerner used to civilized city driving -  where all streets met at right angles and where stop lights, stop signs, and other driving directions are rampant - this was not only intimidating; it really was downright scary.

   I don’t know how we got through. Sally says she was sure that I was going to abandon the car right there - that I would just get out of the car and walk away from it, and her. I guess what I did was grit my teeth, (metaphorically) close my eyes, and race through the intersection and on to the quieter streets of the University. Somewhere we found a parking place, and from there made our way to our appointment at MCZ.

   I had two reasons for visiting the Museum. First, as part of my study of condor mortality, I wanted to confirm that the number of condor specimens at MCZ was the same as determined by Carl Koford in the 1940s, and I wanted to be sure I had copies of all the information available on these specimens. The second and, at the time, more important task was to examine the Museum’s eight specimens of immature-plumaged condors to see if I could gain any insights into how to tell the approximate ages of subadult birds.

   The visit was a success on both counts. I examined all the skins, made notes on plumage differences, and copied bits and pieces of information that hadn’t been in Carl’s files. As we were getting ready to leave, I casually observed that it was odd that Harvard didn’t have any condor eggs, in that it was well known that there had been quite a few in private collections in the Boston area.

   “Oh, we have condor eggs,” said the curator (or words to that effect).

   “You do? But there are none listed in your specimen catalogs, and Carl Koford didn’t find any when he visited here in the 1940s.”

   “I’m not surprised Koford didn’t see them,” the curator replied. “You see, when I first came here many years ago, I was wandering around getting familiar with the collection. I was opening and closing drawers, and I came to this one.” He turned to a cabinet only a few feet from where Sally and I had been working. “I opened this drawer, like this.” And here he dramatically pulled out the drawer, and stepped aside to reveal eight condor eggs, each in its own box, most of them accompanied by the original collection data slips. There were also some great auk eggs, and I think those of some other endangered or extinct birds (Carolina parakeets? heath hens? I can’t remember).

   I was elated. Here were most of the “missing” condor eggs that I knew had once existed in private collections, plus one or two I didn’t know about. Here also were details of where and when most of the eggs had been acquired. It was a treasure trove for a condor researcher. But I was dumbfounded, too.

   “These are priceless. Why aren’t they listed in your specimen files?”

   The curator shrugged. “We never got around to it. Since I was brand new on the job when I found them, and had lots of other things on my mind, I just made a note that they were there, and closed the drawer. I suspect that you are the first one to ask about condor eggs since that time.”

   We examined all the eggs, made copies of all the data slips, and went on our way. I was still giddy from the bonus find. No, I don’t remember driving back through Cambridge. Probably those impossible intersections and rotaries seemed pretty insignificant after striking gold at the Museum.

   I do sometimes wonder if anybody has asked at MCZ about condor - or great auk - eggs since the day we were there. Are they still shut away in a once more forgotten drawer?

*   *   *

*This essay is from Chapter 25, "Museums and Libraries," of my book "Condor Tales" (Symbios 2004).


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