Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century

I spotted this book in a book store and was intrigued so checked it out from my local public library. I really didn't know much about this book beyond the title until I started reading it. I knew it was a true crime story about a young man who stole dead birds from a museum collection. I didn't know why anyone would steal dead birds. Turns out there is a huge market for feathers for tying flies for fly fishing. There is, in fact, an entire subculture of people who use feathers to tie fancy flies. These flies will never be used as fishing lures because what the tiers use are expensive, often illegal, feathers from exotic, endangered, and even extinct birds.

A drawer of Scarlet Minivets 
The story starts with Edwin Rist breaking into a British natural history museum in the small town of Tring. Having scoped out the museum on an earlier visit, Rist methodically pulled out drawer after drawer of specimens, dumping them into a suitcase. He often cleared a drawer of the entire collection of a species, leaving only the drab females. He then fled into the night. It would be weeks before the museum even realized there had been a break-in.

Each stolen specimen held a biodata label tied around its leg, information meticulously collected by Alfred Russel Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin who did fieldwork in the Amazon and the Malay Archipelago. He collected some of the rarest birds in the world, including the almost mythical Bird of Paradise, for scientific research. And Rist just stole more than $1 million worth of them just to provide feathers to supply the "feather underground, a world of fanatical fly-tiers and plume peddlers."

Bird of Paradise
Between the heist and the detective work, Johnson provides background to bring the reader to current events by exploring the "feather fever" that struck during the mid- to late 19th century. During that period birds were hunted for their feathers to decorate Victorian fashions in America and Europe. Of course, Victorian ladies did not want bland feathers from common birds. To show status, ladies craved feathers from Toucans, Quetzals, Hummingbirds, and Egrets. The demand devastated populations as, for example, hunters killed a thousand "Snowy Egrets to yield a kilo of feathers." Starting in 1896 a few outraged women and the Audubon Society lobbied against using birds and feathers in fashion, as many species had been hunted to extinction or near extinction.  Legislation in the early 1900s created refuges and, in 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act outlawed the hunting of any migratory bird in North America. Jumping ahead to the 21st century, customs officials were no longer looking closely for feathers, as they were busy with big game trophies, like rhino horns and elephant tusks. This, and the Internet, created "a small community of obsessive mend addicted to rare and illegal feathers: practitioners of the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying." Johnson provides a surprisingly interesting overview of this practice before transitioning to the present.
Edwin Rist

Enter Edwin Rist. Raised in a small town and homeschooled, Edwin's parents were Ivy League graduates who had fled Manhattan's Upper West Side to better nurture their children and support their multitude of interests. At a young age, Edwin became obsessed with the flute and fly-tying and he mastered both talents. His obsession with music led him to England; his obsession with fly-tying led him to crime. Ultimately, in 2009, this 20-year-old young man broke into a branch of the British Museum of Natural History, stealing millions' of dollars worth of birds and irreparably damaging scientific research.

The book is filled with serendipitous experiences, including how Johnson came to write this book. And he didn't just write the book; he spent years tracking down details of the crime and playing detective as he pursued the stolen birds and feathers. The research and investigation itself are worthy of admiration and pulls the reader into the story in ways that a straight forward retelling could not. Without going into detail, it's hard to tell if justice was served in the end, but answers to many questions were certainly found. And although I have zero interest in fly-tying, the story was both compelling and intriguing and offered a different perspective on birding. The final section of the book contains many photographs and sketches. (I read an electronic copy and it was not immediately obvious that the book contained a ton of illustrations. so be sure to check the end.)
The Jock Scott fly

While I have no interest in fly-tying, I found it odd that the fly tiers talk so much about collecting and possessing feathers. It is illegal in the United States to possess feathers from most birds; this is something I frequently explain to friends who know about my bird rescue and rehabilitation activities and want to proudly show me a feather they found on the beach. According to the law, there is no exemption for molted feathers or those taken from road- or window-killed birds. It is legal, however, to have feathers from a few non-native birds like starlings, but those are not the feathers coveted by the tiers. Interestingly, while it is not legal to sell feathers from wild ducks and geese that have been hunted, it seems that the laws were written by a fly-tier who made an exemption for using those feathers for fly-tying so they can use them for fly fishing. To learn more about feather laws and to view their Feather Atlas, visit the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The Atlas includes feather terms, scans of feathers, and identification aides, along with the laws on possessing feathers.

It was also disturbing to learn from Johnson that the biggest market for illegal feathers is eBay. In addition to selling feathers at fly-tying conventions, tiers sell through the Internet, with little or no policing done by eBay. My own recent search found feathers from many of the endangered or near-extinct birds mentioned in The Feather Thief for sale.

FTC Disclosure: I checked a copy of this book out from the public library. I receive no compensation for reviewing the book.