16 Jun
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If a feather is stolen and no one sees it, does it still make a felony?


Beneath the floors of the venerable Museum of Natural History in Roger Williams Park lies a hidden treasure: hundreds of bird and animal specimens. Sitting in room length rolling cabinets are bears, owls, alligators, even possibly extinct specimens like the Ivory Billed Woodpecker. Mike Kieron, the much beloved late director of the museum, took visitors on the occasional tour of the vaults. But because there isn’t room for all the specimens, most sit quietly in darkness, rarely seen by the general public. Which begs the question: if these specimens are never seen, would it be a big deal if they were stolen?

In the true-crime novel The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century, Kirk W. Johnson explores that question after a promising young music student breaks into England’s Natural History Museum at Tring and purloins hundreds of bird skins from its vaults. Edwin Rist was twenty years old when he toted an empty suitcase down a back alley to the museum and made off with the skins of dozens of birds that in some cases are extinct, and in all cases are internationally protected from distribution. His reason for such a bizarre heist? He was a fly tying fanatic.

Fishing enthusiasts have been tying flies of feather and fur for centuries. The ancient Egyptians may have used them, and the hobby of tying those ingredients to hooks to produce something that looks vaguely like an insect or small fish still counts millions of participants. Most of the feathers come from chickens bred to produce just the right color and patterns, and are readily available. However, there is a small underground group of tyers* worldwide with a passion for tying flies no one should be able to tie: those made with forbidden feathers. Superb Birds of Paradise, Cotinga, Flame Bowerbirds are all birds protected by CITES, an international treaty designed to preserve wildlife. This small group is obsessed with tying the salmon flies made popular when trade in these birds was unregulated, and wealthy men, usually from the U.K., swore by the magic of the brilliantly colored flies. Members of this circle are willing to pay thousands to obtain bird skins for their flies, none of which will ever be cast into a river. This, then, is the obsessive element of the book referred to in the title.

The Feather Thief begins with the adventures of Alfred Russel Wallace, a 19th-century naturalist who devoted his life to the privations and delights of bird collecting. Like John James Audubon, Wallace “collected” most of his birds by trapping or shooting them. At the time of his death, he had collected thousands of skins, which would later end up in the museum in Tring.

Fast forward 150 years and museum curators are stunned to find hundreds of the priceless skins missing. Because most are stored in nondescript drawers unused except by academics, the theft isn’t even discovered for months. Thus, the police are left to follow the cold trail of a bizarre theft.

Author Kirk Johnson brings the reader through the crime, the trial, and the punishment of Edwin Rist. In the process, he learns about the world of natural history museums, which regard the theft as a violation of the highest order. He also infiltrates the secretive world of world renowned fly tyers, some of whom seem unconcerned about the origins of their precious feathers. And he relates the stories of people whose lives were affected by the theft.

The Feather Thief is a well written adventure that will appeal to birders, fly tyers, and those simply interested in a fascinating non-fiction read. It leaves open to debate the question of the magnitude of a theft where all that is stolen are hundreds of birds that will only be seen by an incredibly small percentage of the population. Was the theft an incalculable loss to science or a victimless redistribution of feather wealth? Readers will have to decide.

(*The proper spelling of the term for one who ties flies is a subject of debate. The word would normally be “tier”, but that would result in confusion with a “level”, as in “a top tier player”. Tyer, pronounced TIE-er, avoids that confusion even as it frustrates Microsoft Word’s autocorrect.)

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