Science

A Treasure Trove of 40,000 Bird Specimens Brought to Light

Alongside experts, students are working at the American Museum of Natural History to sort and organize data from the longest ornithological voyage in history.

For some high school students, after-school hours consist of soccer practice or debate club meetings. But for Angelic Henry and Regina Hashim, the fun starts when they’re hunting down almost 100-year-old dead birds in mothball-scented drawers and sifting through dusty field journals.

Since September, Henry, a Pelham Lab High School junior, and Hashim, who is 18 and homeschooled, have been working behind-the-scenes at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). Through the museum's Science Research Mentoring Program which gets high school students involved with research projects at AMNH, the pair visits twice a week to catalogue records from the Whitney South Sea Expedition, the longest ornithological research voyage in history. 

In the early 1900s, the museum persuaded Harry Payne Whitney of the wealthy New York Whitney family to help fund the voyage to the South Pacific Islands, an area scientists had little knowledge of at the time. Over 15 years the crew of the expedition—including bird collector José Correia and ornithologist Rollo Beck—sailed to hundreds of islands, documenting biological findings and taking as many specimens as they could, from Brown Goshawk to Rarotong Starling to Shining Bronze-cuckoo. By the end, they'd amassed about 40,000 bird specimens—as well as plants and other animals—and recorded their locations.

Though such an avian bounty wouldn't be collected today, it's now invaluable for understanding vast ecological changes that have occurred in this region. Some birds from the voyage, such as the Red-throated Lorikeet and the Moustached Kingfisher, are currently endangered largely as a result of increased logging on their home islands. “These data represent historic data points that will never exist again," says Paul Sweet, a collections manager in the ornithology department at the museum who has been combing through the Whitney collection. "This is like a recording of biological history." 

But the problem is the data are a mess. Sometimes bird specimens are labeled with the wrong location, the island name is out-of-date, or the birds don’t have a specific location at all. Without location data, it’s difficult for today’s scientists to map past species’ distributions and to see how their ranges changed as the human footprint on these islands grew and global temperatures have warmed.

This is where Henry and Hashim come in. Under Sweet's guidance, the teenagers have organized and digitized more than 4,000 bird records collected from Tonga, Samoa, Cook Islands, and Kiribati during the Whitney expedition. “In this region, there’s been all these huge agricultural undertakings and logging and stuff that’s been going on that’s changed the environment,” Hashim says. “So to be able to have this picture of the avian life prior to all of this is really valuable.” 

Henry and Hashim spend most of their time delving into Correia and Beck’s journals, the ship’s logs, and a couple other collectors’ journals, finding notes on birds, locating the specific specimen in the museum’s collection, and fixing incorrect information in the database. Both agree the humanity of Correia and Beck displayed in their writing is the most fascinating part of their work.

Page from ornithologist José Correia’s personal journal. Photo: M. Shanley/AMNH

“You think they’re field journals so it’ll be all data and stuff, but no, the collectors treated them like they were diaries,” Henry says. “Yeah, it’s 90 percent completely frivolous and useless information,” Hashim adds. “Correia and Beck hated each other, and a lot of the journals is them just complaining.”

While members of the Whitney expedition team may have bickered, the trio at AMNH doesn’t have such problems. Besides clarifying century-old ornithological data, Sweet takes Hashim and Henry bird watching in Central Park and even taught them how to stuff their own specimens. The two Arctic Gulls the girls crafted now sit in the museum’s nearly 900,000-bird strong collection alongside Samoan Tooth-billed Pigeon and Paradise Kingfisher from the Whitney voyage. The gulls were collected from a more lackluster location, though—they were shot at an airport. 

This isn’t Sweet’s first time working with high school students: He has been reviewing the data for four years with other students helping him along the way. But, he says, there’s probably still another three or four to go before the Whitney data has been completely organized in an online database. The museum, working with partners, has also digitized pages of the field journals (view the scans here).   

For the students, the most important thing they’ve learned is to keep comprehensive, well-organized field journals. “Science and scientists do get very messy,” Henry says. “If it’s just a bunch of random information, you’re not really going to get the results you want to get.”

Knowing the importance of maintaining good notes will be useful in Hashim’s and Henry’s futures: Both plan on continuing to study biology, life sciences, and conservation. “From all the birding Paul took us out to do, I catch myself looking around and spotting birds and being like, ‘I wonder what bird Paul would say that is,’ or, ‘I know that bird now,’” Henry says.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Angelic Henry attended Lehman High School. She attends Pelham Lab High SchoolWe regret the error. 

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