|A drawer of Scarlet Minivets|
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|
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.