The Swamp Prinia is an Indian bird that is found at Harike, in Western Punjab on the Pakistan border. Eminent ornithologist Bikram Grewal, along with a group of peers, were following the accounts about the bird’s sighting by ornithologist Richard Meinertzhagen, and travelled to Ludhiana only to find that the information provided was false. It remains unknown how many avid birdwatchers travelled across the country on the word of one man, who passed away leaving behind what was thought to be an incredible legacy in ornithology, only to be unmasked as a fraud thirty years after his death.
The year is 1995, Pamela Rasmussen, a scientist at Michigan State University, works diligently on what would be one of the best work ornithological works to come titled Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide, a project started by S. Dillon Ripley, a legend in the field who had even worked with one of the biggest bird experts of India, Salim Ali. During her research Rasmussen closely examined thousands of bird skins, many of which belonged to the collection of Richard Meinertzhagen which was acquired by the Natural History Museum, in London, in 1954. Working on a list of Indian birds that would be included in the Ripley Guide, she noticed that Dillon Ripley heavily cited Meinertzhagens’ bird skins, which at the time was normal considering Meinertzhagen was an important voice in ornithology and, in fact, could be said to be the sole authority when it came to birds in India. But the same Meinertzhagen was accused of a very serious crime in the scientific world in an article which Rasmussen also came across while researching.
Unravelling at the seams
It was two years earlier, in 1993, when Alan Knox published an article in the birding journal Ibis, calling attention to fraud committed by Meinertzhagen, accusing him of stealing bird specimens from the British Natural History Museum. Knox’s article gave an example of two Redpoll bird skins that Meinertzhagen claimed to have shot in France in 1953, when in fact they were stolen from the collection of Richard Bowdler Sharpe, who had shot the bird back in 1884 in England. It was verified by a scientist later who x-rayed the Redpoll specimens and confirmed that they were indeed prepared in the style known to be Sharpe’s. What Meinertzhagen had done was simply replace the labels on the bird’s legs with false data about the time of their collection.
The preparation of bird skins is a form of art, in a way, with each ‘craftsmen’ collector having their own style and signature. Specimens can be styled and positioned in a number of ways--keeping the bones inside or removing them, from hollowing out the skulls to different ways of supporting the skin’s; some would use match sticks and other willow twigs. Knox’s analysis of the taxonomy techniques of birds in Meinertzhagens’ collection lead to his uncovering of the deceit. Rasmussen as well noticed the lack of consistency in style in Meinertzhagens birds. Having spent numerous days studying and inspecting a number of study samples, over time it became easy for her to pick up on a collector’s style and technique; Meinertzhagen didn’t have one, since he had stolen so many samples and styles.
Knox’s observations bothered Rasmussen, it was an odd feeling she couldn’t shake off. Could there be more stolen specimens in Meinertzhagens collection? Could the claims of the man who became a towering figure in the world of Indian ornithology, who Salim Ali dedicated an entire chapter to in his autobiography, be false? Meinertzhagen’s was a big name, on whose work a lot of Ripley’s own project was dependant, and with this in mind Rasmussen alerted her colleagues and set off on a detective expedition of her own, into what would be uncovered to be among the greatest frauds in the world of ornithology, if not the entire field of science. It took years of extensive investigation and detective work, with the help of colleaugues Rasmussen went through Meinertzhagens entire collection. She managed to create a database, of sorts, of x-rays of birds so they could compare it to bird skins and connect it to the people who had genuinely collected them. Over time, bird specimens from several museums and collectors that had been listed as missing were found to be a part of the collection Meinertzhagen claimed to be his own.
Who was Meinertzhagen anyway?
But how did a man born into an elite British family end up being an expert on Indian birds? Meinertzhagen had a career in banking before he joined the British army which eventually brought him to India. At this time in Indian history, ornithology was a hobby of the elite, it was during his time in the army in India that he began cataloguing birds that he spotted, shot and preserved, and soon it turned into a collection of close to 25,000 bird skins.
Many signs, one suspect
A regular visitor of the bird room, the Natural History Museum in London was found to have been his main target, keeping his visits limited to the lunch hour when only one staff member would be on duty. A curator even reported that he had given a box containing eight bird skins to Meinertzhagen only to have it returned with seven. In fact, in 1919, Meinertzhagen was even banned from the museum after he tried to leave with a study skin in his possession without authorization, many staff members suspected him of several thefts; he was allowed in only after over a year. In another instance, Scotland Yard was even called in when a rare and valuable journal on bird parasites went missing, and even though it was pretty evident Meinertzhagen was to blame for its disappearance, he was not arrested. Meinertzhagen had friends in all the right places, which definitely made things easier for him when it came to legal issues.
Even after Knox’s alarming paper, no one could have anticipated the extent of Meinertzhagens fraud. Rasmussen and Robert Prys-Jones exposed his duplicity, and though stealing is a crime itself, it wasn’t just about that. He falsified data and even reported sighting species in areas they’d never been seen before, some rare and even possibly extinct birds, such as the case of the now-endangered Athene blewitti, forest owlet. The forest owlet is considered as one of the rarest birds in India, and for a long time was even thought as extinct. Meinertzhagen recorded spotting and shooting the bird in Mandvi, Gujarat, in 1914. This was the last recorded sighting of the bird, the previous one being by James Davidson in 1884 in Maharashtra. At this point, Rasmussen had begun to doubt all of Meinertzhagen’s major claims. Suspecting him of theft once again, she split open the owlet specimen in Meinertzhagens catalogue and out fell a small piece of cotton which was then matched by an FBI lab to Davidson’s specimen of the owlet. He had lied about the origin of the specimen, which pointed all searches of the bird in the completely wrong direction. These thefts and lies misled scientists who were genuinely trying to do good work and attempting to create an accurate picture of bird populations. “Stealing is one thing, but what he had been accused of was stealing them but also re-labeling them with false data, saying he collected them from a different place and different time than from where they actually came from, said Rasmussen. “This provides false information that misguides others.”
One wonders why Meinertzhagen committed such a massive fraud. Rasmussen believes that almost all of his early study skins were stolen from other people’s collections; close to half of the ones from India were stolen too, as were several specimens from his time in Afghanistan. But we also have to acknowledge, as does Rasmussen, that several of his skins, specially those he collected in his later years, were actually critical and his own. While we may never know what drove Meinertzhagen’s actions, what seems clear is his need for perfection, in remounting and repositioning birds, albeit stolen, and a true appreciation of ornithology, however immoral and unethical his actions that surround it may have been.