The Feather Thief

Rating: 
Author: Kirk Wallace Johnson
Genres: Non-fiction
Pub date: Apr. 2018 (read Dec. 2018 on Audible)

I’m not quite sure what possessed me to pick-up The Feather Thief. It’s unlike any of the books I normally read, but I saw it on the Goodreads Choice Awards and was intrigued and then made an impulse buy on Audible. Needless to say, I was very impressed!

This works so well as an audiobook. I’ve said it again and again, but sometimes I struggle with audiobooks and it’s the only time I actually prefer reading non-fiction to fiction because non-fiction reads more like a podcast and it’s easier to digest in audio form. I could definitely picture this as a podcast series and I thought the narrator did a really good job (minus the accents, he is atrociously bad at accents, but it was find of funny).

The Feather Thief is based entirely on a true story and is one of the more bizarre incidents I can think of. Kirk Johnson first heard about the feather thief when he was fly fishing in the American south and his guide mentioned in passing a bizarre story about a young man who had stolen 300 bird specimens from the British Museum in order to use their feathers to make fly-ties for fly fishing. Johnson was totally intrigued by the story and spent the next several years investigating the crime.

It sounds kind of boring, and I could see how it would not be for everyone, but Johnson does a fantastic job recounting this heist that had me totally engaged in the world of fiy-tiers, naturalists, and museum thieves. I sped through this audiobook in just 2 days and was totally enthralled the entire time.

Johnson does a great job presenting the story. There are several components that make this an intriguing tale. First, there’s the naturalists and science. Many of the birds that were stolen from the museum were specimens collected by naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace in the 1800’s and were used to confirm Darwin’s theory of evolution. Many of the birds are exotic species from South America, such as the Resplendent Quetzal, the Blue Chatterer, and the Red-Ruffed Fruit Crow (aka Indian Crow). Many of the bird species in the museum are now endangered and the birds provide an important historical record to scientists and are often still used in research, such as in studying the effects of climate change. The theft of the birds represented a sad blow to the scientific community.

Second, there is the fly-tying community. This was a totally new concept for me. If you’re familiar with fly fishing, you might be aware that fly-ties, which generally look like insects and bugs, are used to attract fish. However, what you might not be aware of is that making fly-ties is an art form that an entire community has developed around. There are some intense fly-tiers out there and those that get into traditional victorian fly-tying can spend hours and days working on specific ties. Because this hobby was developed in the victorian era, many of the feathers used in the fly-ties were sourced from bright and iridescent birds, such as the resplendent quetzal and the king bird of paradise. These birds are rare and it is expensive to acquire their feathers, yet authentic feathers are considered a requirement in the fly-tying community. Dyed feathers are considered (by the community) as incomparable and many fly-tiers participate in the buying and selling of the rare feathers. This is technically illegal, since most bird species are protected and you can’t just buy their feathers, but it’s a little persecuted crime and the sale of feather and entire birds can be found all over ebay and at fly-tying conventions.

That brings us to the heist. Edwin Rist has been an accomplished fly-tier in the community since he was a boy, but has always struggled to afford the feathers required for many of the traditional victorian fly-ties. He moved to England to pursue his degree in the flute, and at the age of 20, pulled off a pretty epic heist of the British Museum that was not even discovered until months later. He broke into the museum with a suitcase and stole 299 birds before disappearing into the night. He claims he only intended to steal a few birds of each species for his own use, but got carried away in the face of such beauty. He then proceeded to find buyers for the birds and feathers.

The British Museum has some 1500 drawers of birds, so it took them months before they even discovered the theft, and when they did, they were flummoxed about who would possibly be interested in such a small, but specific, subset of birds. Edward Rist was eventually caught (obvious since we’re sitting here talking about him), and was put on trial for the heist. However, even though he had been caught, many of the birds were unaccounted for. A good number were seized from his apartment and he did list some of his buyers, but almost a third of the birds still remained unaccounted for. Where were these birds? Did Edwin stash them away somewhere? Did he have an accomplice? Are they still floating around the seedy underbelly of the fly-tying market? These were the questions Johnson set out to answer. This book recounts the history of the birds, the fly-tying community, and the heist, but it also sets out to track down what happened to the missing birds and whether or not Rist acted alone and was correctly tried.

It really was a fascinating story. Like I said, I can see how this wouldn’t be for everyone, but as someone who is currently engaged to an ornithologist and has heard more than my fair share of interesting facts about birds, I was intrigued. (Plus my partner was thrilled when he walked into the room and heard me listening to this; he was like, “wait… are you listening to a book about Alfred Russel Wallace?!” and then proceeded to get really excited for me) I thought the heist was interesting because it’s mystifying. What could possibly possess a 20 year old flutist with his entire life ahead of him to break into a museum just to steal a bunch of birds? But I think what was most interesting to me was the fly-tying community.

The fly-tying community is not messing around. They are a serious community. I don’t know if Johnson portrayed them accurately in this book or unjustly made them look bad, but to be honest, I think they deserve it. I’m sure there’s a lot of honest fly-tiers out there who get a lot from the community and what to improve it, but overall, I thought the community was pretty shameful. Johnson isn’t that critical of the community, but I think he was rightly frustrated with them. The heist obviously drew a lot of negative attention to fly-tiers as a community, which is unfortunate, but I think this community really needs to be held accountable for their destructive actions.

No one person is every indicative of a community, but the way you react to that person is. The fly-tying community essentially won’t talk about Edwin Rist. They don’t condone what he did, but they also don’t really seem to care that much about what he did. The community openly participates in the buying and selling of rare and endangered birds and they are never held accountable for it. Much of what they’re doing is illegal, they just try and hide it under legal means (like “I got the birds/feathers in an estate sale” or “I inherited them”).

I’m biased and I’m obviously going to side with the scientists, but these fly-ties are never actually used for fly fishing. There’s literally no reason why the community can’t use fake or dyed feathers. It’s a hobby. There’s nothing wrong with taking intense pride in your hobby, but not at the damage to endangered species. Many of the people Johnson interviews openly state that they don’t understand why the museum needs so many birds and believe museums should be selling their birds to fly-tiers. They feel they have a greater entitlement to the birds and are of the mindset that they’re honouring them through art. The most shocking to me was Ruhan Neethling (yes I’m calling you out by name dude because I think you are shameful), who bought two of Rist’s birds and knowingly kept them (many buyers sent them back to the museum when they found out they were stolen) because he felt the museum didn’t deserve them as much as him and that unless the museum could tell him exactly what they’d do with the feathers if he returned them, he’d be keeping them. As if the museum needs any reason for the feathers to be returned, the birds were stolen for them, no reason is needed for their return.

Anyways, I thought many in the community showed a complete ignorance to the scientific importance of the birds and showed no remorse over the birds having been stolen. Johnson indicated that he could see a marked increase in the buying and selling of birds and feathers in the fly-tying community forums and on ebay since the heist and postures that this influx is likely related to the stolen birds. Unfortunately there is no way to prove someone is trading stolen birds. All they had to do was remove the museum tags from the specimen and it could never be proved that it was stolen. This also struck me as sad because even though the museum managed to recover almost 200 of the birds (in the form of full specimens and plucked feathers), the birds without tags were no longer useful for scientific purposes. All in all, I think about a third of the stolen birds were returned still with tags, and therefore could still be used for science.

But I think what makes the fly-tying community so frustrating is their refusal to discuss Edwin Rist or the heist. They are both essentially taboo subjects in the community. Any posts on community forums about either always receive complaints and are immediately removed. To me, this demonstrates a lack of remorse on behalf of the community. They don’t seem to want to be better. They just want to return to the safety of anonymity so that they can continue to not feel bad about trading illegal feathers and continuing to endanger bird species. So that’s my rant about the fly-tying community. Like I said, I don’t want to condemn anyone’s passion or community, but this community obviously has a seedy underbelly and regardless of what Edwin Rist did, I think they need to address it.

Back to the book, I obviously liked it, but my one complaint would be that the ending felt a little anti-climatic. I commend Johnson for his investigative journalism and I understand that sometimes our conclusions and investigations don’t end the way we hope they will, and it was just a little disappointing. The ending felt a little abrupt and not wholly satisfying. But that’s just the way it goes sometimes and I did thoroughly enjoy the journey. I would recommend this book to bird lovers, fly fishers, those who love a good heist, and those who love a good true story. This was definitely weird, but in the best way.

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