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Birds of Arabia by Colonel R. Meinertzhagen

Colonel R. Meinertzhagen - Conman, fraudster, soldier, ornithologist?

Or all of the above? Choosing this book is really just an excuse to investigate this intriguing author. 
Let's start by looking at some aspects of the author's life:

Firstly, what could be more straightforward than the title and author - "Birds of Arabia by Colonel R. Meinertzhagen"? Well, nothing, except that in one sense Meinertzhagen probably didn't write it at all, in that he based it very heavily on the work of the American naturalist George Bates.

Secondly, Meinertzhagen was chairman of the British Ornithologist's Club and owned a large collection of bird specimens. Subsequently it was found that many of these had been stolen from the Natural History Museum and Meinertzhagen had written up false collection details. This is particularly ironic as the dedication in "Birds of Arabia" especially thanks the staff of the Bird Room at the Natural History Museum in London whose help was at all times given most cheerfully. Little did they realise they were also donating their specimens! 

Meinertzhagen started his career in the family merchant banking business and then became a soldier serving inBurma, India , Africa and the Middle East . His diaries of these times provide further evidence of his duplicity. His claimed involvement with T.E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia") is invented. His claims to have met Hitler and other senior German officers in the 1930s are pure fiction and his claim to have responded to "Heil Hitler" with "Heil Meinertzhagen" is just an imaginative step too far!

Several unfortunate individuals met their end when they came into contact with Meinertzhagen. In India he shot and killed a servant in a fit of rage, in Africa , whilst shaking his hand he shot and killed a tribal chief who had come to negotiate, and in Scotland his second wife died in a mysterious shooting accident. Set against all this Meinertzhagen was an excellent cartographer and artist as well as knowledgeable naturalist. 

So with this as background - what of "Birds of Arabia"? 
The book was originally published in 1954 by Oliver & Boyd. The superb, leather bound, edition de luxe was then published by Henry Sotheran in 1980 as a limited edition of 295 numbered copies and ten copies lettered A - K. The work is beautifully illustrated with 19 tipped-in colour plates by G.E. Lodge,D.M. Reid-Henry and Archibald Thorburn. In addition to birdlife there are also chapters on the Geology, Geography and Climate, Desert Coloration, Distribution and Migration, Systematics and Nomenclature.

An interesting comment on the book and author is provided in the author's own
words: "I have resisted the more modern system of placing the most archaic, the stupidest and least educated birds first; I prefer placing the best educated, most intelligent and socially superior birds first. Birds are by no means a classless society and cannot be made so."

In 1954 this was the first detailed book on the birds of the region and, putting the unacknowledged contribution of Bates to one side, Meinertzhagen did a thorough job and the Sotheran publication in its handsome binding is a superb addition to any book or bird lover's library.

Contributed by Cliff Tomaszewski

(Published 4th Dec 2014)

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