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Bird Man

The remarkable journey of the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology’s René Corado.

By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

Photo by Michael Moore

 

he Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology is one of the world’s most prestigious institutions for avian biology — and possibly Ventura County’s best-kept secret. Tucked away in Camarillo’s industrial zone is this hotbed of data and research, home to over a million eggs (one of the largest collections in the world), thousands of nests, hundreds of live mounts and more. Ornithologists come from all over the globe to explore its archives, library and vast collection.

Helping to oversee all of this is collections manager René Corado, an intelligent, affable and outgoing researcher whose own story is as incredible as the remarkable holdings of the institution. His path from humble beginnings in Guatemala to the ornithology institution would be a long and meandering one.

“I was born in 1960 in a little village, with only 13 houses,” Corado says. El Chicał in central Guatemala, near the Rio Motagua, was a rural and impoverished place. It was nevertheless something of a paradise for the young Corado. “In that little village, I had the largest garden in the world,” he recalls. The Rio Motagua is the largest river in the state, an important corridor for migratory birds and home to such species as the magpie jay, the green parakeet, hummingbirds, orioles and the laughing falcon. “I was very interested in birds as a child. I thought they were amazing.”

When he was 8, Corado moved with his family to Guatemala City. There was more opportunity in the city, but it was a hardscrabble existence. “I didn’t have any shoes until I was 12,” Corado notes. Like other impoverished kids, he supplemented his meager diet with food found in the trash heaps, fighting stray dogs for the scraps left behind.

Even at a young age, Corado displayed the pluck and opportunism that would serve him well throughout his life. He had a cousin who made money shining shoes and wanted Corado to join the business. Corado’s father was reluctant — he wanted his children to focus on their education — but eventually agreed, with one caveat: He wasn’t allowed to start work until the school day was over.

Corado attended classes in the morning, and in the afternoons took up a post as a lustrador (shoeshine boy) across the street from the National Palace. There he received a different kind of education. “It was really interesting,” he recalls. “When you clean shoes, people ignore you. And they’d talk to each other about their trips — to California, Mexico, Spain, New York City.” Dreams of travel began to fill the young lustrador’s head.

One of his regular customers was the director of the newspaper Diario La Nacion, and the enterprising Corado began to ask him for a job. Incessantly. “He didn’t hire me, but he appreciated that this kid never quit,” Corado says with a laugh. “He told me he’d give me a job once I finished sixth grade.” (At the time, sixth grade was considered a reasonable education level for Guatemalans of a more modest background.) The newspaperman was true to his word.

Twelve-year-old Corado initially started as a janitor. But he was very bright, a quick study with a curious mind, and he eventually worked his way into the printing room. “By 17, I was in charge of the printing department,” he says. He married a few years later. (He and wife Mary are still together, 38 years later.)

Guatemala had been embroiled in a civil war since 1960, and many Guatemalans emigrated in the 1970s and 1980s to escape the violence. Remembering the stories he heard shining shoes, “I decided that the U.S. was where the dream was,” Corado recalls. After one failed attempt in 1979, Corado returned in 1981 and made his way to California. A variety of odd jobs kept him afloat until he settled in Los Angeles as a gardener. Mary and his young daughter, Claudia, joined him shortly thereafter.

Corado found work at the Bleitz Wildlife Foundation, run by wildlife photographer Donald L. Bleitz. In addition to tending the grounds, he cared for some 80 exotic birds, live butterflies and thousands of orchids, and acted as a photographer’s assistant. “The pay wasn’t great,” he admits. “But the love for that work led me to something that I really love.”

Bleitz died in 1986, and left the foundation’s collection to the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, founded in 1956 by Ed N. Harrison, a natural historian, photographer and avid collector who had started the WFVZ out of his house in Brentwood. He kept Corado on and taught him the tricks of his trade: taxidermy, egg blowing, cataloging — everything necessary to preserve and catalog specimens for research. The two men developed a deep and abiding friendship.

“I called him my American father,” Corado says fondly of Harrison, who died in 2002.

With Harrison’s encouragement, Corado learned English through adult education classes, and took online courses to earn his high school diploma. His work at the WFVZ deepened, and he had the opportunity to learn from the likes of renowned condor researcher Lloyd Kiff and wildlife illustrators Dana Gardner and N. John Schmitt. “I got trained by these big guys,” Corado notes. He accompanied them to the Amazon, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Guatemala as a field biologist. It was an immersive education.

When Harrison moved the WFVZ to Camarillo in 1992, Corado came with it, and was officially named collections manager in 1994. He’s been here ever since.

The ever-curious Corado has pursued plenty within and outside of the WFVZ. Now a resident of Oxnard, he serves on the advisory board for the Extended Opportunity Program and Services for Oxnard College, and on the Art Commission for the Cafe on A/Acuña Gallery and Cultural Center. He’s participated in numerous ornithological studies at home and abroad, and given countless presentations in local schools. He and Linnea Hall, the WFVZ’s current executive director, have collaborated on numerous publications, and he wrote two autobiographies: 2014’s El Lustrador (in Spanish) and the bilingual children’s book The Adventures of René Corado: The Shoeshine Boy, published in 2016. Sales from these books support his El Lustrador Foundation, a nonprofit he founded to improve educational opportunities for underprivileged youths in Guatemala. Corado’s books have been a great success in his native country, and through presentations and television interviews, where he’s readily recognizable by his moustache, wide smile and black cowboy hat, he’s become something of a celebrity there. 

He’s also revisited Rio Motagua. A census of breeding species revealed alarming levels of contaminants in the bird populations of the heavily polluted river. Corado brought these findings to the government, and was initially ignored. Once the books made him a recognizable figure, he used his platform to advocate for the river’s cleanup and conservation. In 2015, he discussed his concerns with then-presidential candidate Jimmy Morales, whom he met when both were part of a television interview. After Morales won the election, the new president invited Corado to the 2016 inauguration . . . and committed to helping the rivers.

“It didn’t happen until I had a book,” Corado notes. “It’s sad that you have to be something of a star to get them to listen to you. They don’t listen to the biologists. But it’s a tool to really help the environment.”

Corado’s work in conservation and education has led to significant recognition. In 2016 alone, he was named a Distinguished Guatemalan by the Central American Confederation of California, a Distinguished Guatemalan Abroad by the Congress of Guatemala, and also received an award from Guatemala’s Department of the Environment . . . among many other honors throughout recent years.

Corado has accomplished enough for several lifetimes, and yet his work continues. Research in Central and South America (and locally in the Santa Clara River) is ongoing. Plans are currently underway to make El Lustrador a film, and he is also involved in the founding of a new museum in Guatemala. Corado and Hall are trying to raise funds for a bus to bring low-income students to the WFVZ, and to hire more museum staff. He hopes “to expose kids to birds, so they might become the new biologists.”

That little boy who fought stray dogs for food in the trash heap sure has come a long way. He’d like to spare others the ordeals he experienced, but he recognizes the value of his journey. “Yes, my life was hard,” Corado says. “But that was a lot of experience in life. Now, I appreciate everything more.”  

Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology
439 Calle San Pablo, Camarillo
805.388.9944 orwww.wfvz.org.

El Lustrador Foundation
805.744.7341 or elustrador@yahoo.com

 

TENDING THE FLOCK: With the museum since 1986, Corado has helped turn the WFVZ into one of the most prestigious research and education institutions in the world. Its holdings include over a million eggs, thousands of nests and hundreds of live mounts — many of which Corado himself collected or prepared.

EGGS ANYONE?: Corado is an oologist, an ornithologist who specializes in the study of eggs, nests and breeding behavior. He has traveled to Costa Rica, Ecuador, the Amazon Rainforest and his native Guatemala studying and monitoring avian species.

01-01-2018

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