The Lie Files



redpoll Bird collection coup
1 APRIL 1999. A famed British ornithologist has perfected a new
bird-gathering technique that promises to drastically reduce the tedium of collecting. Richard Meinertzhagen has found that simply relabeling specimens from the collection of a natural history museum is far more productive than actually going into the field and bagging them.

"I've hunted birds all over the world," said Meinertzhagen, "but I've never seen the kind of concentration that a trained collector can find at the Natural History Museum at Tring in Herefordshire. If I can hunt a red-headed escrow in Indonesia, why can't I hunt a three-footed booby in Herefordshire?"


Redpolls, the very species that Meinertzhagen relabeled.
Paintings By L.A. Fuertes courtesy of Cornell University Library.
Meinertzhagen noted that certain birds, like cowbirds, lay eggs in the nests of other birds, which are duped into raising cowbird young as their own. "I think of my new appropriation technique as 'learning from nature.' I'm using other collectors much as cowbirds use other birds. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.'"

While many of the specimens Meinertzhagen appropriated were returned to the museum collection at Tring, a key to his technique was a subtle change on the labels, which now credited Meinertzhagen as the collector. Likewise, he sometimes altered the collection location to reflect his personal vision of ornithology. "Natural history museums don't exist just to document nature," he pointed out. "They exist to improve on nature."

Meinertzhagen noted proudly that he -- but nobody else -- had found three subspecies of birds in the United Kingdom. "I've been able to raise the number of bird varieties found in the U.K. And in an age when birds are going extinct all over the world, who isn't in favor of increasing biodiversity?"

Frequent flyer savings
Meinertzhagen described another of his innovations as "telepresence collection." Through sheer force of will, he collected birds from places he'd never visited. "The obvious saving in time is only part of the benefit," he explained. "As biologists' budgets continue to decline, we need a way to cut bothersome travel expenses while still collecting materials."

Long after his death, Meinertzhagen got nabbed for playing foul with bird specimens. Here's how his deceit came to light.

Meinertzhagen, who moonlighted as a soldier, spy, and author, was also a big-time bug collector. The Natural History Museum also has almost 600,000 bird lice, flies and mites. That group includes 1,791 type specimens -- the benchmarks that define individual species.

Meinertzhagen was evasive about whether he'd also applied his unique biodiversity sampling techniques to these specimens.

The Why Files
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