Paul Sweet Reigns Over the Biggest Dead Bird Collection in the World

Paul Sweet Reigns Over the Biggest Dead Bird Collection in the World

The planet’s most comprehensive collection of bird specimens is housed in the American Museum of Natural History. It’s growing every day and so are its uses.

Bird skins from 1934.

Bird skins from 1934.

Paul Sweet, Collection Manager of 28 years for the Ornithology Department of the American Museum of National History, has gone birding and made discoveries in wild mountains and jungles across the world, yet he still gets excited to spot a pair of red-tailed hawks circling Central Park. On an afternoon this past February, the 53-year-old British zoologist, could barely sit still on his office couch. He darted up mid-sentence to his gaping windows to point at a couple darting dots. He offered me his binoculars and asked eagerly, “want to take a look?”

Sweet is at home in this office where the bookcases overflow with bird guides. He plucked a worn book titled The Observer’s Book of Birds published in 1937 in the UK, given to him by his grandfather. His attention to the sky started young, I learn, and to this day he tells me, “wherever I go I am basically birding.”

The museum itself is about 150 years old though some of the purchased specimens date back 200 years. The collection boasts nearly one million specimens. The birds are immaculately preserved and hail from all continents and oceans. The specimens are represented as stuffed birds, skeletons, egg shells, and tissue samples, and what’s referred to as “pickles” - that is whole specimens preserved in spirit.

In his office is a cabinet marked “expeditions” where he files away documents from his fieldwork. On top, a bouquet of feathers fans out from a vase next to a stuffed perched owl. Among a drawer of specimens is a subspecies named for Sweet by a colleague, Garrulax milleti sweeti, the Black-hooded Laughingthrush, collected on an expedition in Vietnam.

In total, Sweet has joined more than 26 collection expeditions in 15 countries. He has traveled to Western Australia, the Central Highlands of Papua New Guinea, and the remote mountains of Vietnam to name a few. Include his time birding for personal travel and that number doubles.

Sweet started his work with bird collections at the University of Singapore, which he attended after earning his degree in zoology at the University of Liverpool in 1986. “I hand-wrote letters to lots of institutions back when there was no email,” he said. “I got a promising letter from a professor in Singapore. Through her, I discovered the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum known then as the Zoological Reference Collection”  That museum holds a collection of birds dating back to 1840, which is important to science because it represents a historic baseline of biodiversity data from before humans had a heavy impact on the habitats of the region. “I started working there databasing the collection. When I got back to New York, an entry-level job opened up at the AMNH and after some years, I got promoted to this position.”

When Sweet yanks open drawer after drawer of taxidermied birds, he doesn’t ruffle at the slight odor. “What does it smell like?” He earnestly asks. “Errr…like the inside of a musty book.” I offer up. On metal trays lay the birds face up grouped in sections by taxon. Roach traps to guard against would-be intruders.

Some of the beaks are tied shut with a snippet of string. Looped around each bird foot is a tag, the oldest appearing reminiscent of a torn bit from a sepia-toned diary; crisp cursive marks each bird’s geographic region, sex, and species name. “The label is what makes it a bird specimen,” Sweet says.” Otherwise, it would just be a dead bird.”

I admire one collected from a voyage operated by Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild (1868–1937) - acclaimed as one of the most prolific collectors of zoological specimens during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Sweet has a profound respect for the legacy of renowned contributors to the collection. Rollo Beck, an American ornithologist, bird collector for museums, and explorer, ranks among his favorite. “He was a rough character and mean to people, but we have many of his amazing collections and I have his diaries and the journals of those who were with him.” Notable in Beck’s collection - hired in the 1920s by the museum as an expedition leader and bird collector - are many type specimens of Pacific Island birds collected during the Whitney South Sea Expedition.

Modern-day specimens arrive at the museum by way of unusual corridors; shepherded from their places of death all over North America to a spot in posterity at the museum.

Sweet is tipped off by what he refers to as “bird alerts” which he monitors closely. The information channels for reporting on birds are surprisingly sophisticated. Both everyday enthusiasts and professional bird scientists contribute information about bird sightings through WhatsApp groups and Yahoo and Cornell run listserves. “There is a phone message that you’d call in New York and it still exists. It says something like, ‘Greetings this is the New York State rare bird alert and the highlights of today are…’” That number is 212 979 3070.

Rarity, it turns out, is not a precursor to accepting a specimen into the most prestigious dead bird collection in the US.

“We are interested in building time series for certain species.” Hence the need for common birds. “So if you are trying to look at environmental change across time, we like to have specimens of common birds collected through say 200 years. If you are interested in environmental contamination that is recorded in the feathers. If a bird is in an environment with mercury you’ll actually get a signature in the feathers so you can trace accumulation of heavy metals by looking at bird skins through time.”

When I prod him about the extinction event and recent major environmental shifts affecting birds like habitat destruction, Sweet pushes out a strong exhale.

“I’ve been on the frontline of situations where you see beautiful, tropical, pristine forest being chopped down in front of your eyes,” he recalls from his work in the Solomon Islands. “It’s very upsetting. I’ve been studying birds with the sound of chainsaws in the background. You know whatever they cut is not coming back.”

The discoveries made by him and his teams, like many hard-earned scientific findings, come as a result of endurance and personal risk. Sweet sputters off the pitfalls he’s endured: “Bad weather, flash floods, tropical diseases, injuries, infections, walking up muddy hills, falling over, vehicle accidents, capsizing boats.” The dangers are serious. “People die on expeditions,” he says. “Running into hostile folks with weapons, that’s happened to me.”

Sweet’s profuse passion for the natural world has flung him into the unknown of remote places to work and study. After traveling to the historically fraught region of Northeastern Vietnam in the year 2000, Sweet’s team published papers debunking previous ideas about what birds lived where. “We documented about 30 species that no one knew existed to this region.”

“For me, it’s important to keep preserving and documenting; to keep adding to the collection because you don’t really know what techniques and methods will be developed,” Sweet says. “We are now doing genomics and DNA work with specimens from over a hundred years ago before DNA was even known. Undoubtedly, new methods will come along to teach us something new.”

Sweet, age 10 in 1975, at Chew Valley Lake in England.

Sweet, age 10 in 1975, at Chew Valley Lake in England.