Book review: ‘The Feather Thief’ by Kirk Wallace Johnson


A few birds you won’t find around your bird feeder are the red-ruffed fruit crow, the Spangled Cotinga, the Resplendent Quetzal or the Greater Bird of Paradise. In fact, if you don’t look quickly and in a tropical environment, you may not see them at all. All are in danger of going extinct like the passenger pigeon. Some would say that extinction is inevitable when your primary predator is man.

There was a time, not too long ago, when birds looked to be an endless resource. There were millions of them, birds wherever you looked. The obvious example was the passenger pigeon. Flocks could darken the sky for three days as they passed. They became food and sport and were hunted to extinction.

Brightly colored male birds became a valuable commodity in the 1800s as women’s hats, with the addition of feathers, became a fashion statement. What better way to show your social status? Until the conservationists won the day and large hats and automobiles became incompatible, thousands or maybe millions of birds met their ends.

International agreements and fashion shaming put an end to bird poaching, right? The changes might have worked except for an 18th century sport/art named salmon fly tying. Salmon lures originally meant for fly casting to catch salmon in their native habitat had become objects of an art, complete with books of recipes for a number of the noteworthy; e.g., the black ranger, the infallible, the champion …. To follow the recipe, one had to obtain the correct feathers, unless forced to use inferior dyed feathers. Correct feathers, of course, often meant expensive, perhaps illegal feathers.

American flutist Edwin Rist had become obsessed with the art at a young age, and he was skilled. While in England for school, he hit upon a plan to support his hobby for a lifetime and make some money besides. The Tring Museum of Natural History was nearby and had the largest collection of rare bird skins (feathered) in England. They had been collected by such noteworthy naturalists as Alfred Russel Wallace and represented untold scientific value. All this meant to Rist was that the skins were going to waste in drawers. He conjured and carried out a plan to steal several hundred of the rare and valuable skins.

This is where the story gets interesting and somewhat bizarre. You may want to read it.

Color photographs in the book illustrate descriptions in the text.

As an aside, while researching the nonfiction book, the author had occasion to examine the topic of extinction. One viewpoint that was expressed was new to me. “Everything is going to go extinct anyway…. Man is not going to save the earth; he’s got no chance of saving this earth because God has written it to be destroyed.”

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