According to Melissa Pitkin, PRBO Conservation Science's education and outreach director, the move to Petaluma from cramped and outdated offices in West Marin represents all of the organization's ideals and hopes wrapped up in one. The new research center on the edge of the Shollenberger Park bird sanctuary is a $6.5 million dream come true.
"We made a list of things we wanted," Pitkin says, "a list that included a beautiful location close to nature, close proximity to universities, proximity to airports since we fly a lot of scientists in and out, proximity to the public so we can draw more volunteers and school groups. Petaluma happened to have this complex being built right overlooking Shollenberger, and since we didn't want to develop on protected land, since this space was already under development, it seemed perfect for us."
The 20,000-square-foot facility, still only partly occupied at present, will eventually include offices and laboratories in which the PRBO's world-wide research on bird populations and environmental change will be organized. Some of these will be "wet labs," where studies on birds and fish are to be conducted ("Much of which consists of examinations of bird vomit," Pitkin says).
Part of the PRBO's mission is to educate the public about issues related to birds and the environment, and plans for the new facility include an expanded education program, with walks and tours of Shollenberger to be added to the PRBO's already expansive series of lectures, walks and trips around the North Bay. The new building contains a large research library (think lots and lots of bird books), which is open to the public, to students of all ages and to local scientists, bird watchers and amateur ornithologists.
It is interesting to note that in the spacious second-story lounge area overlooking the adjacent marsh through massive floor-to-ceiling windows there is a large birdscope and a nearby bird log where staff members list the new bird species they see; this is not for professional purposes, so much as for recreation. Asked if the PRBO workers don't ever get tired of looking at birds, Pitkin laughs.
"Of course not," she says. "Birds are what we do."