The Feather Thief

The Natural History Heist of the Century

The human impulse to possess beautiful things often plays out in not-so-pretty ways. For example, we gouge out the earth to get our hands on sparkling stones, capture wild animals and confine them to a life of misery in cages, or slaughter them for their pelts, horns, tusks. Wildlife is thus commodified and traded to meet the demands of fashionistas and faddists, or to satisfy obsessions such as the seemingly unlikely one for exotic plumage. It is this obsession that is the subject of The Feather Thief.

Author, Kirk Wallace Johnson was on a fly fishing trip in New Mexico when he heard about the bizarre theft of several hundred bird skins from the Natural History Museum at Tring in England.  The thief was Edward Rist, a music student from the USA and a member of an international community dedicated to the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying.  Rist had first encountered fly-tying as a young boy when he watched a video on the subject. He was instantly hooked. As his obsession evolved, so too did his drive for perfection. For him, not any feather would do: only those listed in the nineteenth century ‘recipes’ for salmon flies were good enough. Many of his fellow fly-tiers felt likewise and were willing to pay high prices for the real thing. This presented a chance to make a pretty penny. The problem was that birds of those feathers were as rare as hens teeth and almost all were on the CITES list. The solution lay in the museum at Tring.

In this fascinating book, Johnson looks into the history of ‘feather fever’ and the massive millinery industry that turned a dead bird  into the ultimate status symbol in the late 19th century and that was to cause a huge decline in bird numbers. He examines too the Victorian fly-tying fraternity and the dodgy ‘science’ on which their art was premised. Having drawn the background scene, he then charts his own journey into the world of fly-tiers as he strives to make sense of the theft and fill in the missing pieces of a strange and twisted puzzle. In some ways, his mission to uncover the truth becomes almost an obsession too.

The result is a gripping tale that emphasises the extent to which human folly wreaks devastation on the natural world.

The Feather Thief.

Author:  Kirk Wallace Johnson

Publisher:  Windmill Books

ISBN 9780099510666

Reviewer:  Andrea Abbott

In our podcast below, Andrea reads a short excerpt from the book detailing the discovery of the unusual crime more than a month after it was committed. Museum staff were in disbelief: who on Earth would want to steal dead birds?

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