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

The tropical birds-of-Paradise have fascinated generations of naturalists, from Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace (who risked life and limb to collect many specimens for museum holdings) to David Attenborough, who, together with Erroll Fuller, wrote Drawn From Paradise: The Discovery, Art and Natural History of the Birds of Paradise. They were at the centre of a Victorian fashion craze for bird feathers, which decimated many colourful bird families, but they were also at the heart of a far more obscure Victorian pastime: salmon fly-tying. A resurgence in interest led a young man to break into the ornithology collection of the Natural History Museum at Tring, stuff a suitcase with 299 specimens of various rare colourful bird species, and walk out again to sell their feathers.

Wait, what?

Welcome to the story of the natural history heist of the century.

The Feather Thief

The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century”, written by Kirk Wallace Johnson, published by Hutchinson in April 2018 (hardback, 313 pages)

First off, what is fly-tying? I was only vaguely familiar with it, but it is a traditional craft of making fish lures that resemble insects by tying various materials to a fish hook with thread. Anglers use these to catch fish. At least, this is true of those used to catch trout. Salmon are far less discerning when it comes to what’s on the lure, as long as it is something that doesn’t look natural. In the wake of above-mentioned feather craze, there was wide availability of exotic feathers, and aristocrats rapidly developed an unusual tradition for ever more outlandishly decorated fish lures calling for the use of feathers from various rare bird species. Specialist manuals were written that preached a pseudoscience to justify the use of these exotic and expensive materials, even though salmon couldn’t care less. The worst part? These flies aren’t even used for fishing anymore, and most salmon fly-tiers today are not anglers.

This is the backdrop that Kirk Wallace Johnson paints for the reader in the first part of The Feather Thief. This hobby saw a resurgence in the nineties and with the rise of the internet, hobbyists the world round connected to exchange tips and materials. Here, the protagonist of the story, Edward Rist, a young and talented American flute player, enters the story. Together with his brother he became entranced with the art of salmon fly-tying at a young age and quickly rose to prominence in these circles for the exquisite works he produced (to me these things all look very similar, but connoisseurs will disagree). It also drove him to visit the Tring branch of the London Natural History Museum, which has one of the world’s largest ornithological collections, built up over the course of centuries by early naturalists in an era when species conservation and extinction wasn’t much of a concern yet.

“[…] fly-tiers […] see museums as useless relics sitting on valuable collections, keeping them locked away for no good reason really.”

Slight digression here. Yes, natural history museums, like most history museums, have a troubled legacy of collections that have been partially built on plunder, colonialism, and, for the former, the hunting and killing of animals large and small. I don’t expect my opinion on this to be popular, but what is done is done. We cannot go back and undo this. For all their troubled history, these specimens in museum collections around the world have immense scientific value, being time capsules that allow us to answer questions that the original collectors could never have envisioned. My recent review of The Lost Species: Great Expeditions in the Collections of Natural History Museums highlighted their value, but Johnson mentions two more specifically pertaining to bird specimens. Egg collections were vital in showing the harmful effects of the pesticide DDT, leading to its eventual ban, and feathers from 150-year old seabird specimens irrefutably showed rising mercury levels in the oceans, flagging up health concerns. However, this value was lost on Rist, and as shown throughout the book, on most salmon fly-tiers. They see museums as useless relics sitting on valuable collections, keeping them locked away for no good reason really.

Based on court proceedings, (often now deleted) internet pages, and interviews with Rist, fly-tiers close to him, the museum curators at Tring, and police staff, Johnson meticulously reconstructs Rist’s subsequent burglary and theft, the delay until the crime was discovered by the museum, the subsequent investigation that initially went nowhere, the chain of events that led to Rist’s arrest, and the subsequent court proceedings. Even though part of the specimens was returned to Tring, tragically, Rist had removed the labels from many other specimens. These provide vital details on the locality and date of collection. Removing this information makes the specimens useless for further scientific inquiry and irreversibly destroys a piece of history. Frustratingly, Rist walked away with a suspended sentence and never served time behind the bars, although he was given a hefty fine.

The Feather Thief reads like a good crime novel […] though […] a tragic and troubling one”

If you think this is the end of the story, this is where the book takes an unexpected turn, as part three describes how Johnson became interested – and then obsessed – with this case, months after Rist had been sentenced. He effectively went on a private investigation that the police forces in Tring did not have the manpower for, to try and find out what happened to a large part of the bird specimens that were still at large. Was there still a large stash out there, labels and all? Had someone else been involved, even though Rist had always maintained he acted alone? Rist’s heist has been covered by media outlets, but I shall not give away how Johnson’s story ends.

The Feather Thief reads like a good thriller and is a proper page-turner, my jaw dropped several times at some of the unbelievable figures and facts Johnson recounts here. You have to remind yourself that this is a true story. And a tragic and troubling one at that. Though Johnson refrains from casting a judgement on the fly-tying community, they don’t come out of this story as a respectable bunch. They may have publicly condemned Rist for his actions, but Johnson’s subsequent investigations reveal that many on the inside were only all too happy to turn a blind eye to the provenance of feathers once he started selling his haul. And the fact remains that their arcane “hobby” fuels an often illegal trade in protected species. Even though common feathers, dyes, and substitutes can be used to create fly-ties that are indistinguishable from traditionally crafted ones, these men (for it seems to be a scene populated almost exclusively by men) have developed an obscene fixation for the authentic. It is easy to agree with ornithologist Richard O. Prum’s desire to see this pastime “stigmatized into oblivion”. Worryingly, natural history collections the world over regularly experience these kinds of thefts, as various groups obsess over certain animal body parts and wild populations can’t meet demand.

Would I recommend you read The Feather Thief? Yes, the book is very well written and I was glued to the book to the last page, reading it in a single sitting. The opening chapter on Wallace (drawing heavily on The Annotated Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russel Wallace and The Heretic in Darwin’s Court: The Life of Alfred Russel Wallace) could be written for a movie. Just be forewarned it is also a depressing and troubling story that will likely not make you feel good about how we relate to some of the beautiful animals and plants that surround us.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

Johnson’s The Feather Thief paperback, hardback or ebook

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:


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