A Rare Gull, an Innocent Query, and a Colossal Fraud

While the vast majority of my posts have dealt with adventures from the trenches (of fieldwork), I’ve recently been involved in a simple research project that ended up being quite interesting from the perspective of museum history.

Interns Tim McSweeny (L) and Raoel Sheik (R)
preparing study specimens

In prior blogs I’ve posted how we obtain some rather unusual specimens from Wildlife Rehabilitators.  One of our principle ‘Rehabbers’ is Dana Simon who has brought us a number of sea birds and raptors, among other goodies.  Today’s story began in the late Summer of 2007, when Dana was brought a ‘different’ looking gull that she was unable to identify to species.  If Dana’s charges perish, she is kind enough to save them for us in a large freezer until she has enough worth making a trip in for.  Now you crazy kids don’t try this at home, Dana runs a fully permitted and licensed facility.

Nearly a year after the gull was initially found dead of an unknown ilnness on Surfside, it was brought to us here at the museum.  It was prepared here as a study skin by one of my interns, Tim McSweeny.  Once we get several study skins together, ready to be catalogued into the collection, I will identify some of the more challenging individuals as part of a Curator’s duties.  This gull was rather difficult to identify, but after much comparison with other species, I was able to determine that it was a female Sabine’s Gull (Xema sabini) in non-breeding plumage.  It was definitely worth writing up as a published note, as there were few (if any) specimens of Sabine’s Gull from the Texas Coast.  Although sight records do exist, a museum voucher specimen provides irrefutable evidence of the species’ occurrence.

I then contacted Dr. Keith Arnold at Texas A&M University.  Keith was my Major Professor for my Ph.D. work over a decade ago, and we often collaborate on anything I publish involving Texas birds.  ‘Dr. A,’ as his prior students call him, is a walking encyclopedia of past and present records of rare birds in our beloved state.  Although there are 625 species accepted as regularly occurring in Texas, others such as Sabine’s Gull have been taken off the review list because the number of reports are so few and far between, with fewer than four reports per year over a ten year average.  Keith told me there had been one specimen prior to this one and it was housed in the Natural History Museum’s (NHM) collection in England.

Although the NHM proper is located in London, the approximately 750,000 bird specimens are housed in a huge multi-leveled building approximately an hour northwest of London in the quaint market town of Tring in Hertfordhsire.  I know this because I visited there nearly 15 years ago when collecting data for my dissertation from various museums around the globe.  At the time I visited Tring, I was pleased to meet the acquaintance of a kind gentleman by the name of Dr. Robert Prŷs-Jones.  Robert was kind enough to help me navigate through the hundreds of cabinets to find what I was after during my visit.  We hit it off just fine, so I was hoping he wouldn’t mind if I bugged him to gather some information about the Sabine’s Gull specimen in his care at the collection at Tring.

Well, I began to get a little nervous when I didn’t receive an immediate reply from Robert with the news.  I then received an enthusiastic and lengthy reply from him a couple of weeks later in early October 2008.  He did indeed remember me and explained the reason it took him a couple of weeks to reply is because although he had located the specimen, it proved a bit baffling and he had to do some research to figure it all out.

The HMNS specimen of Sabine’s Gull (Xema sabini)

Robert had been working with various colleagues such as Dr. Pam Rasmussen on a scandalous affair that involved fraud and the theft of specimens from NHM’s collection, among other places.  The culprit was one Col. Richard Meinertzhagen, who was a giant in the field of Ornithological expedition and discovery during his heyday in the early 1900’s.  At that time Meinertzhagen was well known as a respected Ornithologist with a large private collection of approximately 20,000 specimens.  His falsification of specimens and their respective tags that contained important data was first published on by Clancey (1984) although Knox (1993) was the first to publish a serious analysis of the scandal.  Later on, during research to write a guide to birds of southern Asia, Pam realized that Meinertzhagen’s fraud was actually much more extensive than originally discovered.  It was then that Pam collaborated with Robert to systematically describe the extent of his fraudulent ways, using the specimens they were able to uncover through careful research.

Apparently the case of the Sabine’s Gull at NHM was one of the more blatant examples of the Meinertzhagen scandal.  To quote part of Robert’s reply to me:
[N]ormally he covered his tracks slightly better by removing the original collector’s label and changing dates/localities; it is also interesting to have proof that he might change “collector” details in a case where he was not claiming to have collected the specimen himself.  This case is so blatant that either he didn’t realise the rarity of the species in Texas or he’s putting two fingers (one in the US?!) up to the ornithological community and saying “[I]f you cannot catch me on this, what can you do?”

So alas, Robert came to some important conclusions, that this gull in the NHM collection was one of the more blatant of many examples of fraud by the late Richard Meinertzhagen.  He kindly recommended we collaborate to publish the information, which now has been accomplished, and if you’re so inclined, you can read it here.

- DB, 1/14/10


Post-script: Kind thanks to Robert Prŷs-Jones, Pam Rasmussen and Keith Arnold for reading and providing comments on the text.

“Bird-Airplane” Collisions and Forensic Ornithology

The New York Times recently published an article, Trafficking in Contraband that Sings, on birds from Guyana that were being smuggled into the US for singing competitions. Strangely enough, these competitions are judged by humans and not by female birds. The part of the article that intrigued me the most, however, also aired on NPR, about the Forensic Ornithologist (Dr. Train) called upon to testify in court regarding these birds. This was a field of science new to me and, curiosity piqued, I did a little research.

Forensic Ornithology has been used in a variety of ways and with a variety of methods including DNA or by “eyeballing” the species. Experts in the field have been called upon to help solve such problems as bird-airplane collisions, homicide investigations, and endangered species’ poaching cases. It is an interesting field of study where you have to incorporate a lot of information on feather structure, bird bones and even DNA.

Credit: NASA

In the wrong place at the wrong time, a bird is silhouetted against the clear blue Florida sky (upper left) as it falls away from Space Shuttle Discovery after hitting the external tank during liftoff of mission STS-114 in July 2005. Credit: NASA

Take bird-airplane collisions like the Hudson River Landing. By knowing which bird(s) collided with the airplane, a management plan for that bird species can be made to prevent such collisions in the future. (As an aside, is it really fair to put the bird first in “bird-airplane collision”? Or what about “Bird hits External Tank during Shuttle Launch”? As if the bird was the one traveling with boosters strapped to its keel.)

All kidding aside, analysis of the bird remains can help focus on which species may need management. Leading to alternate aircraft routes during peak bird activity to avoid potential collisions, using bird radar to track flocks of birds such as NASA uses and even sound cannons strategically placed to keep birds out of the aircraft’s flight path.

So where does one go to have birds or their remains identified? If it is a larger sample, the Museum’s very own collection can help. Dr. Dan Brooks, Curator of Vertebrate Zoology, has identified parts of birds for museums and the USF&WS (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service) to ascertain whether or not it was a species listed as Threatened, Endangered or CITES. He has also used the collection (and his own vast knowledge) to identify feathers in Indigenous people’s ornaments, including the “Ice Queen” mummy of National Geographic fame. Pretty cool! For the high-tech study of bits and pieces used as evidence in court cases, professionals usually turn to the NMNH’s Feather Identification Lab.

 black vultures
Creative Commons License photo credit: ljmacphee

In another article by the NY Times, the initial forensic analysis performed by the Lab of the remains collected from a collision produced deer DNA. That seemed odd, since the collision took place at 1500 feet. Analysis of a feather sample that was also collected identified the bird as a Black Vulture, evidently with deer remains in it’s stomach. Science is awesome!

Here is a link to NPR’s interview “The Tale of a Bird Detective.” So turn up your speakers and learn something new today!

100 Years – 100 Objects: Salvaged Bird Casualties

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 - meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from Dan, the museum’s curator of vertebrate zoology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the most fascinating animals in the Museum’s collections, that we’ll be sharing here – and on hmns.org – throughout the year.

salvaged-bird-casualties-6x3Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata, VO 987)
Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens, VO 1968)
Common Loon (Gavia immer, VO 2076)

A number of HMNS’ bird collection specimens are salvaged by wildlife rehabilitators.  These dedicated ‘rehabbers,’ as they are known in their industry, do everything in their power to heal the sick and injured wildlife that comes into their care, with the ultimate hopes of re-releasing the individual back into the wild.  Sadly, some of the rehabbers ‘patients’ never make it back into the wild, let alone back to the holding facility, as their injury resulted in their death.

In the HMNS collection, we have three such specimens, a blue jay that choked to death on an acorn, and two less common seabirds that died from ingesting fishing hooks and tackle.  These incidents were published by HMNS staff in Bull. Tx. Orn. Soc. in 2002 (35: 11-12) and 2007 (40: 31-32), respectively.

You can see larger and more detailed images of this rare specimen – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the photo gallery on hmns.org.

HMNS@100: Henry Attwater – Naturalist

One of the founding collections of the Houston Museum of Natural Science came from Henry Philemon Attwater.  Born April 28, 1854 in Brighton, England he would become, as did many nineteenth century gentlemen, a naturalist.  But not in his native country.  In 1873, he immigrated to Ontario, Canada where he tried farming and beekeeping.  His growing interest in natural history led him to the preparation and exhibition of natural history specimens.  He worked with John A. Morden collecting specimens in Bexar County, Texas in 1884.  The following year he and Gustave Toudouze were hired to prepare and exhibit specimens in the Texas pavilion at the New Orleans World Fair.

Attwater married Lucy Mary Watts, a widow with two children, on December 31, 1885.  They never had children together and the family moved to London, Ontario.  We get the first inklings of Attwater’s enthusiasm for museum exhibits when he opened a small museum in 1886.  Unfortunately, it did not prosper and closed the following year.  During those few years in London, Ontario he must have found time for singing.  A review in a local paper there singled him out as a fine soloist.

railroad
Creative Commons License Photo credit:
Beaverton Historical Society

In 1889, the family finally moved to Texas where Attwater again tried beekeeping for a short while in Sherman before settling in San Antonio.  The next decade saw Attwater really start to come into his own as a naturalist.  He collected specimens throughout the state and lectured and wrote on agriculture and natural history.  He found employment preparing exhibits of Texan wildlife and natural products at fairs and expositions.  When he became the agricultural and industrial agent for the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1900 the Attwaters moved once again, this time for good, to Houston.

By the time Attwater had relocated to Houston he had already gained recognition and respect from other naturalists and scientists.  In particular, the ornithological collections he made in Bexar County in 1892 received a great deal of attention.  His field notes were published in the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History and he provided notes for several other books. 

He was elected a director of the National Audubon Societyin 1900 and re-elected for another five year term in 1905.  It was also during this time that Attwater became known for his conservation efforts.  He was instrumental in the passage of the 1903 Model Game Law.  Four years later he served on the game-law committee which recommended hunters’ licenses be required for resident and non-resident hunters and that the revenue from the licenses and fines be restricted exclusively for game protection and propagation.  When he retired from the railroad in 1913 he immersed himself completely in the study of natural history.

Surprisingly, Attwater was not a 1909 charter member of the Houston Scientific Society, which I wrote about in an earlier post as the organization that would one day become HMNS.  But at some point, he sent out brochures for the sale and disposal of his self-titled “Museum of Natural History and Other Specimens.” Today, HMNS has several copies of this undated brochure and also a copy of another undated brochure simply titled “Exhibit of Products and Resources of South Texas.” 

I mention the second brochure because it solicits a larger Texas audience, while the first targets Houston specifically.  What is certain is that in January 1916, there was an exhibition of “The Attwater Exhibit: Texas Samples and Specimens” at City Hall here in Houston.  (A confusing note adds that it is the gift of The Progressive League to the city.  I’ve not yet discerned if the exhibit fee perhaps was borne by the Progressive League or if the League actually bought the collection exhibited, though I lean towards the former.) 

In the July 28, 1917 edition of The Houstonian, an unsigned editorial pleads for Houstonians to not lose the valuable “Atwater (sic) Museum” to Dallas or San Antonio.  The founders of the Witte Museum in San Antonio purchased a collection from Attwater in the 1922/23.  I’m still researching which collection went to San Antonio.  But I did find notes from the Houston City Library dated June 2, 1922 which contain the first mention of Sigmund Westheimer offering to purchase the Attwater collection (whichever one it was) and donate it to the Library and the City of Houston.

prairie-chicken
Creative Commons License Photo credit: Designatednaphour

H.P. Attwater died September 25, 1931; his grave is at the Hollywood Cemetery on North Main.  The Attwaters lived at 2120 Genesse Street and although it’s known that his widow was still living there in 1940, sadly no house stands at that address today. 

However H.P. Attwater’s collections and legacy live on.  From a quick and very unacademic Google search I found specimens that he collected in the collections of the Witte, Smithsonian, Field museum, Dallas Museum of Natural History, Los Angeles County Museum, American Museum of Natural History, the British Museum, and of course here at HMNS.  His field notes and articles can be found online.  Several species were named in his honor, the most well-known in Texas being the Attwater’s Greater Prairie Chicken.  Today, conservationists continue Attwater’s early conservation work in ongoing efforts to conserve the Prairie Chicken and its natural habitat.  This early naturalist and his work loom large still.