I didn’t ever meet the famous old sub-species bird man*, but for a while he lived next door to me in Marriott Road. I was in Whittington Court, he was in Eden Gardens; I found this out when I spotted a nightjar at my window one night and got very excited; I listened every night and finally heard it – it was the freckled; Now more excited – a Freckled Nightjar in the city! – I was about to announce my discovery when I read Dr Clancey knew all about it – it roosted on his roof next door! The Eden Gardens had a flat roof and it was covered in stones or gravel. Good spot for a Freckled to conceal itself by day.
So after I found info on the bird; and after Aitch and I had prowled around the gardens of his hotel at night and found our first Bush Squeaker frog one rainy night (Arthroleptis wahlbergi), I went looking for info on the man (usual warning here: This is me, approximate and amateur historian, giving my version of things – look at the references if you need accuracy).
Clancey was director of the Durban Museum and Art Gallery for thirty years until his retirement in 1982. He then continued as a research associate until his death in 2001, aged 83. He was a confirmed bachelor and the most ruthlessly dedicated and hardworking of ornithologists. He wrote a number of books of which The Birds of Natal and Zululand (1964), The Game Birds of South Africa (1967) and The Rare Birds of Southern Africa (1985) are now valuable Africana. Yeah, I hope so! I have two of them. So far my “investment” in bird books has been a damp squib.
As a young man ca.1949 he was a field assistant to the famous British military and ornithological fraud, Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, a dodgy, lying, philandering Englishman who faked much of his life and got away with murdering his wife. They once nearly shot each other in a heated disagreement over bustards in Namibia. Guns were drawn before the hired skinner stepped between the protagonists. Sanity prevailed and tempers cooled. On another occasion Clancey fell ill in a remote spot and was abandoned to his fate by Meinertzhagen. Clancey was not given his due by Meinertzhagen in his writings – those who knew Meinertzhagen were not surprised.
In 1950 Clancey moved to South Africa, to Durban as curator of the museum.
Years later, Clancey had a famous professional rivalry with Colonel John Vincent, one time head of the Natal Parks Board and himself an ornithologist of note. One one occasion Vincent had him arrested for collecting without a permit. His shotgun was confiscated. Undeterred, Clancey bought it back at a subsequent auction.
He must have rubbed people up the wrong way! Vincent Parker prominent atlasser and bird survey guru, in his 1999 The Atlas of the Birds of Sul do Save, southern Mozambique, also didn’t give Clancey his due, ignoring many of his records and relegating others to an appendix (‘subject to confirmation’), which ‘in most cases was quite unjustified’ (see the obituary in Ibis by Dowsett, Allan, and McGowan).
Clancey never had much regard for unnecessary luxury, and retired to a small room in a residential hotel – right next door to my Marriott road flat – in Durban. He continued to write papers, named 328 African bird taxa (more than any other contemporary scientist). The majority of his holotypes are in Durban Museum or the National Museum of Zimbabwe. R J Dowsett wrote: ‘I know of over 550 publications on African birds by Phillip Clancey, for most of which he was sole author (and not counting the sub-divisions of his miscellaneous taxonomic notes series).’ Later he increasingly devoted himself to his painting. His style was unmistakable, rich colours, attention to detail, and always the correct ecological background.
Any birder who has spent time in Natal will have seen these birds in just that habitat! Eminently recognisable.
Clancey donated his collection of some 5,500 mainly Western Palaearctic bird-skins to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. He donated his collection over 32,000 bird-skins – a collection considered the finest in Africa – to the Durban Museum and Art Gallery.
And also – unbeknown to him – he was my neighbour.
- Obituary, R.J Dowsett, D Allan, R McGowan (2002), Phillip Alexander Clancey (1917–2001), Ibis 144 (2), 369–370.
- In memoriam: Phillip Alexander Clancey, 1917-2001, David Allan, The Auk 120(1):198-199, 2003
- Obituary in Ibis: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1046/j.1474-919X.2002.00053_2.x
- Look for the honest biography on that fraud Meinertzhagen – there are bulldust hagiographies out there: “The Meinertzhagen Mystery: The Life and Legend of a Colossal Fraud” by Brian Garfield
* sub-species bird man? I think Clancey was that dreaded sub-species of ornithologists called a splitter! He keenly added sub-species to existing species if he felt they were different enough. He found many many birds in new localities, expanded the known range of many, and did find good sub-species. Plus, he found one new full species, the Lemon-Breasted Canary Crithagra citrinipectus in the Maputaland coastal grasslands.