Uncovering 'Fowl' Play

By Amy Wilkinson

Imagine discovering Beethoven plagiarized his Fifth Symphony or that Picasso’s masterpieces were simple paint-by-numbers. It’s happened,
although not in the realm of music or fine art, but in the world of birds. While compiling her two-volume work Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide, biology graduate Pamela Rasmussen ’82 and ’83 stumbled upon the greatest deception the ornithological community has ever seen. Now, as a result of Rasmussen’s discovery, thousands of specimens collected by the late, world-renowned ornithologist Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen are suspect.

During your research for The Ripley Guide you discovered that
ornithologist Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen had not only stolen specimens from his colleagues, but had relabeled them with false data. What initial clues led you to question Meinertzhagen’s specimens?

I heard about an article by Alan Knox alleging that Meinertzhagen had stolen redpoll specimens and possibly other species. I recognized the name Meinertzhagen as one I had run across as a contributor to the records of the Indian subcontinent.

I went back to the handbook of birds of India/Pakistan and went through it systematically and made a list of the species and subspecies for which his records are the only ones on which the occurrence of that species or subspecies is based. At that time it was 14 major taxa (species or strongly
marked subspecies). I began to worry. I didn’t want to include species in the guide that hadn’t actually been recorded. Nigel Collar from BirdLife International recommended that while I was at the British Museum the following week, I contact the head curator, Robert Prys-Jones, and have him pull those specimens, so he and I could examine them. So that’s what
I did. Prys-Jones and I were quite easily able to determine that at least
some of them were fraudulent.

By fraudulent I mean the label with Meinertzhagen’s name and data is not genuine. The specimen is still a good specimen; it’s generally what it says it is. But the where, when, who—all of it is fraudulent.

How were you able to determine that the specimens were fraudulent; that they were not Meinertzhagen’s, but had been stolen from other collectors?

Each ornithologist prepares his or her specimens in a different style. There are many different variables, such as where the first incision is made, whether they use a support stick, whether they break or cut the leg bones,
and what kind of materials they stuff it with. All we could say initially was that Meinertzhagen’s questionable specimens didn’t have anything stylistically in common with each other.

How did you eventually figure  out the rightful collector of each specimen?

We quickly realized that we had to compare them with members of the same species that were at the British Museum. When we started doing that, we found other people’s series that had specimens prepared in the exact same style as the Meinertzhagen specimens.

When a specimen comes into the museum, it is entered into a register or catalogue with a unique number. When we checked those registers, we would often find that where someone else’s specimens match Meinertzhagen’s, there should have been an additional specimen that wasn’t there. We found this in quite a few cases, and by the end of that trip we were pretty sure that most, if not all, of those 14 unique taxa were fraudulent. Since then, we’ve determined that all 14 are indeed fraudulent,
plus many more. The analysis has broadened considerably. because we need to know more than just whether his rare or unique records were fraudulent. We needed to know whether this extended to his ordinary records, and we found out that it certainly does.

Will this fraud have lasting implications on the ornithological community?
Yes. There is no reason to believe that this fraud does not extend further than just the Indian subcontinent. He collected thousands of specimens from Africa, the Middle East, Northern Europe, and Asia. And many of those are published as unique or important records. We found more than 75 records for South Asia, where his specimens gave an erroneous idea; something about the data he attributed to his specimens was different enough that it changed what we knew about that species. For instance, he claimed to have collected a certain species in the winter in the Himalayas. Nobody knew at that time that that species was actually migratory, and they were not there that time of year. It was only when I published my
book that I was able to correct that record.

Are there plans to conduct an exhaustive investigation of Meinertzhagen’s specimens?
Prys-Jones has some plans, but the problem is, it is very time-consuming
and is not the kind of thing that one can readily get major grant support for. It needs to be done. How soon it will be done, I don’t know.

The Ripley Guide is the first of its kind to include extensive vocalizations of the birds of South Asia. How do you translate “bird” into English?
Originally, I felt that I couldn’t do the vocalization descriptions for the book because I have defective hearing—I can’t hear high pitches. But then I got ahold of some sonogram software, and realized that I could see the whole vocalization that way. I was able to see what I was missing and use the sonogram to make quantitative and qualitative descriptions for each vocalization.

First, I make a sonogram for each species—often it is dozens or
hundreds, because some birds have very extensive repertoires, while others show a lot of geographic or racial variation. I go through the sonograms and try to work out what characterizes each species, and how many vocalizations they have, and how they differ from other species. I then do the quantitative analysis, basically documenting the length of the notes, the pitch, the frequency, etc. In many cases, I write sort of a transcription, which is, in words, as close as possible to the sound of the bird. Of course there are problems with that, because different things sound different to different people, and the conditions that you hear them
in on the tape recorder may be different than the conditions that you would hear them in in the wild.

Tell us about your current work at Michigan State University. Are you working on any special projects?

My main job is teaching, so right now I’m teaching ornithology, which is obviously my favorite course. In the spring, I’ll be teaching bioscience for majors and introductory biology for nonmajors.

Last July I was part of a project to do field work in Northern Burma. To work there in the rainy season is kind of awful in some ways because of the constant rain and the leeches, but it was very rewarding, because no one ever goes there to do ornithological work during that time of the year. We found a few new things, not
new species, but a few new things that were not known for that part of Burma. I’m hoping to go back next summer. Some 46 million Americans call themselves birders.

If you were to assemble a “beginners birding kit,” what would you include?

I just put one together for the students in my ornithology class. Some had never used binoculars before!

Obviously you’ll need binoculars. You will also need a book for the region and will need to start becoming familiar with those birds and when and where you’ll see them. Otherwise, if you go into the field with no knowledge of what you might see,
it’s much more tedious. It’s good to hang out with other birders—you learn a lot that way. It’s good to have tapes for that region, like the Peterson Field Guide tapes, and
a tape recorder. Take a notebook to write everything down. Don’t forget a hat, sunglasses, field clothes, mosquito repellent, an umbrella, and water.

How did you become interested in birds?

When I was a kid my dad told me I should be doing something useful, productive. I didn’t know what that might be instead of playing dolls. My mom brought a bird book home, and I started looking at it, and I immediately became hooked on that. I thought it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. My younger sister also saw the bird book but didn’t feel that way at all. I guess it’s just one of those things.

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Last update on November 7, 2007