The Lives of Ornithologists

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 14 Aug 2017

Every ornithologist I know has told me that they have the most interesting, enjoyable and fulfilling life. Most of us privileged to make a living studying birds (academics, NGOs, government, etc) can’t believe our luck in being able to ‘work’ at something we love to do, and in the process make a useful contribution to basic knowledge, conservation, human welfare and the training of young minds.

Meinertzhagen & Kori bustard in Kenya in 1915

When we were writing Ten Thousand Birds, I was also struck by the incredible cast of characters who made major contributions to the study of birds, in particular, and biology, in general. Take, for example, Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen (1878-1967). When I was a young teenager, our local Earlscourt Public Library in Toronto got a copy of his book Pirates and Predators soon after it was published in 1959. I found it on the new book rack and immediately took it to the corner reading area where I devoured its contents. What a book! Meinertzhagen’s stories of bird behaviour stoked my interest in scientific natural history—even though I was then mostly into butterflies and herps. Reading that book was the genesis of my interest in bird behavioural ecology, a field that only emerged as a distinct discipline about 20 years later.

Imagine my disappointment to learn—almost 50 years later—that Meinertzhagen was a charlatan, himself both a pirate and a predator—“a bully, a cheat, and a pathological fantasist. In short, a shit.” (Rankin 2007). Over a long and illustrious career, Meinertzhagen stole specimens from the British Museum, reconstructed bird specimens to make and claim new subspecies (Rasmussen and Collar 1999), altered museum specimen labels so he could ‘discover’ range extensions, almost certainly murdered his second wife, spied on his neighbour’s pre-teenage daughter undressing (and later became her ‘partner’), and concocted myriad tales of his military exploits, one of which became legendary and the subject of two books (Lord 1970, Capstick 1998). This and more is chronicled in Garfield (2007) and will be the subject of some later posts.

Fortunately not many ornithologists are THAT interesting but many have very engaging stories to tell. Unfortunately, the actual life stories of most ornithologists are very difficult for historians to reconstruct, so most of those stories are lost forever to the detriment of both ornithology and the history of science. When we were writing Ten Thousand Birds, the autobiographies of ornithologists Fernando Nottebohm and Peter Marler, published by the Society for Neuroscience, were gold mines of useful information, as were the published biographies of several famous ornithologists of the last 150 years (see here for list).

This year, the AOS will launch a new, online, open access journal of ornithological memoirs in an attempt to preserve for posterity some of the interesting lives of contemporary ornithologists. We have not yet decided on a name for the journal and are just in the process of establishing the guidelines for authors and the editorial board and process. We have two large autobiographies of deceased ornithologists to begin this series and will aim to launch in November 2017. Watch this space.

If you have been a professional ornithologist for more than 25 years, and are writing—or thinking of writing—your memoirs, send me an email and we will consider publishing it in this new journal. We hope to keep these published memoirs relatively short (<15,000 words) and focussed mainly on ornithology. There will be no cost to the authors and we will welcome photos, videos and audio files. In the coming months, we will be sending out invitations for a few prominent ornithologists to contribute to this series.

This series is not, however, meant to focus on only the famous but instead to chronicle the lives of a cross selection of contemporary ornithologists. All ornithologists make a contribution to the study of birds and a record of that cross-section is historically valuable. As you will read here in the coming months, many great discoveries in ornithology were made by people who are little known today, and thus not ‘famous’ in the usual sense of the word.

Capstick PH (1998) Warrior: The Legend of Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen. St. Martin’s Press, new York

Garfield B (2007) The Meinertzhagen Mystery: The life and legend of a colossal fraud. Potomac Books Inc, Washington, DC.

Lord J (1970) Duty, Honour, Empire. Random House, New York.

Meinertzhagen R (1959) Pirates and Predators: The piratical and predatory habits of birds. Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh

Rankin N (2007) A pirate and a predator. [Review of Garfield 2007] Literary Review 341:

Rasmussen PC, Collar NJ (1999). Major specimen fraud in the Forest Owlet Heteroglaux (Athene auct.) blewitti. Ibis 141:11–21.

IMAGES: Book cover and title page are in the public domain (mouse over for captions); Meinertzhagen photo is also in the public domain, from Wikimedia Commons at

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