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The Feather Thief

The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson
Hardcover
Apr 24, 2018 | 320 Pages
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Praise

“Fascinating . . . a complex tale of greed, deception, and ornithological sabotage.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Fascinating from the first page to the last—you won’t be able to put it down.”
Southern Living

“A fascinating book . . . the kind of intelligent reported account that alerts us to a threat and that, one hopes, will never itself be endangered.”
The Wall Street Journal

“Thrilling . . . This book is The Orchid Thief for the fly-fishing and birding set.”
Paris Review, “Staff Picks”

“Fascinating . . . a complex tale of greed, deception, and ornithological sabotage.” —The New York Times Book Review

“[A] true-crime caper recounted with relish.” 
O, The Oprah Magazine, “10 Titles to Pick Up Now”

“Vivid and arresting . . . Johnson [is] a wonderfully assured writer.”
The Times (London)

“One of the most peculiar and memorable true-crime books ever. . . . Johnson is an intrepid journalist . . . [with] a fine knack for uncovering details that reveal, captivate, and disturb.”
Christian Science Monitor

“An uncommon book . . .  [that] informs and enlightens. . . A heist story that manages to underline the enduring and continuing importance of natural history collections and their incredible value to science. We need more books like this one.”
Science

“The best compliment I can give a nonfiction writer is that they make me care deeply about an obscure topic I would otherwise never have been interested in. That’s the case with Kirk Wallace Johnson’s The Feather Thief.”
Eva Holland, Outside, “The Best Summer Books”

“A fascinating account of a bizarre crime . . . The Feather Thief is one of the more peculiar and gripping crime stories in recent memory.”
LitHub CrimeReads, “The Essential True Crime Books of Spring 2018”

“Johnson succeeds in conveying the gravity of this natural-history ‘heist of the century,’ and one of The Feather Thief’s greatest strengths is the excitement, horror, and amazement it evokes. It’s nonfiction that reads like fiction, with plenty of surprising moments.”
Outside

“A riveting read.”
Nature 

“A literary police sketch—part natural history yarn, part detective story, part the stuff of tragedy.” 
Smithsonian

“Within pages I was hooked. This is a weird and wonderful book . . . Johnson is a master of pacing and suspense . . . It’s a tribute to [his] storytelling gifts that when I turned the last page I felt bereft.” —Maggie Fergusson, The Spectator (London)

“A riveting story about mankind’s undeniable desire to own nature’s beauty and a spellbinding examination of obsession, greed, and justice . . .[told] in engrossing detail. . . . A gripping page-turner.” 
Bustle

“Enthralling.”
HelloGiggles

“Richly informative, with handy illustrations, endlessly fascinating and crackingly entertaining, The Feather Thief is the kind of true-crime narrative that gives Erik Larson’s much-lauded The Devil in the White City a run for the money.”
Shelf Awareness

“Highly entertaining . . . journalism at its best . . . If you know nothing about fly-fishing or tying, it doesn’t matter, as long as you like a well-written story.”
—Karen Gallagher, The Baltimore Sun‘s Roughly Speaking podcast

“Reads like a whodunit . . . I could not put it down.”
—Tom Rosenbauer, The Orvis Fly Fishing Guide Podcast

“This is the type of book I absolutely love – one that takes a seemingly obscure topic and shines a brilliant and bizarre and endlessly fascinating light upon it. The crime itself is riveting, but Kirk Wallace Johnson’s portrayal of the crazy world of feather fanatics makes this an unforgettable read.”
—Michael Finkel, author of The Stranger in the Woods

“Captivating…Everything the author touches in this thoroughly engaging true-crime tale turns to storytelling gold. . . . Johnson’s flair for telling an engrossing story is, like the beautiful birds he describes, exquisite. . . . A superb tale about obsession, nature, and man’s ‘unrelenting desire to lay claim to its beauty, whatever the cost.’”
—Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review

“[An] enthralling account of a truly bizarre crime. . . . Johnson goes deep into the exotic bird and feather trade and concludes that though obsession and greed know no bounds, they certainly make for a fascinating tale. The result is a page-turner that will likely appeal to science, history, and true crime readers.”
Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

“A remarkably compelling story of obsession and history.”
Booklist, Starred Review

“You’ll never look at a feather the same way again after reading this riveting detective story . . . [The Feather Thief] brilliantly weaves together Alfred Russel Wallace, the surprisingly shadowy history of fly fishing, conservation and the plumage of the most beautiful birds on earth.” 
The Bookseller (UK)

“A true-crime tale that weaves seemingly unrelated threads—a museum break-in; the development of evolutionary theory; a case of post-Iraq PTSD; endangered birds; and (above all) the murky underworld of fly-tying obsessives—into a spellbinding narrative tapestry.”
—Mark Adams, author of Turn Right at Machu Picchu
 
A captivating tale of an unlikely thief and his even more unlikely crime, and a meditation on obsession, greed, and the sheer fascination in something as seemingly simple as a feather.”
—Paul Collins, author of The Murder of the Century

“A stirring examination of the devastating effects of human greed on endangered birds, a powerful argument for protecting our environment—and, above all, a captivating crime story.”
—Peter Wohlleben, author of The Hidden Life of Trees

“This gem of a book, about a heist of archival birds, is marvelous, moving, and transcendent. I can’t stop thinking about it.” 
—Dean King, author of Skeletons on the Zahara and The Feud

“This extraordinary book exposes an international underground that traffics in rare and precious natural resources, yet was previously unknown to all but a few. A page-turning read you won’t soon forget, The Feather Thief tells us as much about our cultural priorities as it does about the crimes themselves. There’s never been anything like it.” 
—Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, author of The Hidden Life of Dogs

Author Q&A

How did you hear about the “feather thief,” and what is it about this burglary that you find so captivating?
I stumbled upon the story of the feather thief while trying to escape from a nearly decade-long struggle on behalf of Iraqis who had become refugees after serving alongside U.S. troops, diplomats, and aid workers during the war. Each year, I felt increasingly trapped by the ballooning size of the humanitarian crisis on one side, and the unwillingness of the U.S. government to throw them a lifeline on the other. To keep my sanity, I started fly-fishing whenever I had a free day, sloshing up rivers with no cell service and focusing on little other than the current. I was waist-high in the cold water of the Red River, which cuts through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains north of Taos, New Mexico, when my fly-fishing guide mentioned a strange theft of exotic bird skins from the British Museum. I was immediately entranced. When I learned that the thief had gotten away with it, and that there were still bird skins at large, I began poking around into the story. What started as a side hobby spun into an obsessive, all-consuming hunt for the missing skins in a madcap quest for justice.

Part of what makes this crime so bizarre is what was actually stolen: feathers! Why did Rist risk jail time and his future over the skins of dead birds?
This is a perfect demonstration of the scarcity principle in economics: when there’s a high demand for a good that has only limited supply, the value of that good skyrockets. Thanks to centuries of hunting as well as the international treaties that emerged to protect birds as a result of the conservation movement, many of the feathers used by the original salmon fly-tiers in the nineteenth century are now nearly impossible to obtain. And yet, those same feathers are coveted more than ever; in the subculture of contemporary fly-tiers, those who can tie the “real” thing, using the feathers specified by 150-year-old recipes, are granted a huge amount of prestige and status. It’s hard to imagine, but some of these Victorian fly-tying recipes call for $2,000 worth of feathers, all wound around a single hook that will never be cast into a river. Though perfectly legal substitute feathers from dyed game birds can be used to achieve the same look, Rist wanted to be the greatest at his craft . . . and the quickest way to amass an unrivaled supply of “the real thing,” in his obsessed mind, was to scale the walls of the Natural History Museum at Tring.
Can you describe the scientific and historical ramifications of Rist’s crime?
It is indisputable that the theft has blown open a hole in the scientific record: the skins Rist stole are irreplaceable, because we can no longer capture a King Bird of Paradise from 1860. Dr. Richard Lane, the Natural History Museum’s director of science, described the Tring heist as “a catastrophic event” and a theft of “knowledge from humanity.” After all, ornithological collections have unlocked vital insights over the centuries—in the nineteenth century, Darwin and Wallace drew upon them as they independently developed their theories of evolution through natural selection. In the twentieth century, scientists compared specimens in the museum’s egg collection to demonstrate that shells had grown thinner after the introduction of DDT pesticides, which were ultimately banned. Feather samples from the Tring’s seabird collection helped document rising mercury levels in the oceans, leading researchers to describe them as the “memory of the ocean.” The skins Rist stole almost certainly hold answers to questions that scientists haven’t yet thought to ask, which is why I was so hell-bent on tracking down the lost birds of Tring.

What sources did you draw on in your investigation?
The book resulted from hundreds of interviews with fly-tiers, feather peddlers, ornithologists, historians, museum curators, detectives, and prosecutors, to say nothing of face-to-face marathon interviews with the feather thief himself—in his only interview on the matter—a possible accomplice, and many others at the heart of the crime, none of whom had ever told their story before.
I also managed to pry loose the court transcripts from the St. Albans Crown Court; the psychological report that kept the feather thief out of prison; a small mountain of email correspondence between the thief and his customers; incriminating forum and Facebook posts that have since vanished from the web; eBay sales records; and the only screenshots in existence of the thief’s website.
The book also draws heavily on archival research, including the papers and field notes of Alfred Russel Wallace—who gathered some of the birds Rist would steal 125 years later; the accession records of the Natural History Museum; nineteenth-century fashion magazines, and millinery trade industry archives. Amazingly, I’ve befriended Wallace’s grandson, who shared a heartbreaking anecdote recounted toward the end of the book.

It seems getting 299 bird skins into one suitcase would be nearly impossible. Did Rist act alone or do you think he had help breaking into the Tring?
Many of the stolen birds, such as those in the Cotinga genus, are only six inches long, and, like all birds, are incredibly light – only a couple ounces when living. In interviews, various museum curators gave conflicting opinions on whether it would be possible to fit them into one suitcase. In an attempt to find an answer, my wife and I made a pile of “birds” out of socks and rolled-up T-shirts, each approximating one of the missing skins, and decided that it was possible, but certainly not easy.
The question of whether Rist had help that night bedeviled me for years. I’ve seen the wall he scaled and the window he precariously crawled through from his perch atop it—I would not have wanted to do it myself. The British police long questioned whether he worked with an accomplice that night—someone who might have been idling out front in a getaway car—but because the theft wasn’t discovered until a month after it happened, the CCTV footage had expired, and they never found out. Of course, Rist denies any help, but even after all these years, I can’t say for certain whether he was alone that night.

Do you think anyone who knowingly bought or sold the Tring feathers will be prosecuted?
I can only say that the book has already triggered increased attention by the law enforcement community on the somewhat brazen way in which skins and feathers from protected species are bought and sold.

How has the fly-tying community reacted to the publication of The Feather Thief?
I don’t think they’re very excited about this book, to say the least. Some members are more offended by my somewhat-teasing term “feather underground” than the substance behind it: that a whole bunch of fly-tiers bought these feathers and never returned them. I received a threat within my first few weeks of starting to investigate the fate of the missing skins; my attempt to confront the private online fly-tying forum, where so many transactions occurred, triggered a flame war about a topic—the Tring heist—that was so uncomfortable to its membership that more than forty individuals begged the administrator to delete my post.
Of course, there are plenty of fly-tiers that were appalled by this theft, and had nothing to do with Rist. The sad truth, however, is that the addiction to these rare feathers is only growing: since the book’s publication, the value of many of the species involved in the heist has skyrocketed.

Where is Edwin Rist today and what is he doing?
He is performing as a concert flautist in Germany under a different name. He also posts heavy metal flute renditions of songs like Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” and the Game of Thrones theme to YouTube.

After spending half a decade investigating and writing about this strange, regrettable, and seemingly preventable crime, do you feel there any silver linings to the story?
Yes. As a result of the investigation, some of the stolen feathers were returned to the Natural History Museum—but, more important, there is a fledgling movement within the world of fly-tiers to embrace “sustainable” feathers: they hope to stigmatize the obsession with rare and protected plumes in their community, and to popularize the use of dyed feathers from game birds like pheasants or turkeys. I don’t know whether the sustainable movement will prevail, but in a close-knit community like this, change can only come from within. Spencer Seim, the fly-fishing guide that first told me about the Tring heist, is a leader of this movement: you can see and buy his beautiful flies at www.ziafly.com.
This probably doesn’t fall within the “silver lining” vein, but another consequence of the book is that many natural history museums have added locks to the cabinets housing the species referenced in The Feather Thief.

Which natural history museums would you recommend for readers eager to see the types of bird specimens you describe in The Feather Thief?
One of the great joys of writing this book has been the discovery of just how many wonderful natural history museums are operating across the country. There are far too many to list, but the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in D.C., the Field Museum in Chicago, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the Peabody Museum at Yale, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, and Moore Lab of Zoology at Occidental College are all personal favorites.

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