Ex Libris: The Feather Thief

“Rivers and the inhabitants of the watery element were made for wise men to contemplate, and fools to pass by without consideration.” — Izaak Walton, 1653

By Henry Clay

Every hobby seems to have a certain subset of followers who obsess over their chosen practice, taking it to levels that only a few desire or can achieve. In the case of fly-tying (tying bits of feather and fur on a hook to use as a lure for fly fishing), the zealots tie salmon flies using exotic feathers. Some of these feathers are so exotic that they come from endangered tropical birds that are almost impossible to acquire. Interestingly, most of these fly tiers know nothing of fly fishing and have never even held a fly rod — they tie salmon flies purely as an art form. The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson takes the reader into the esoteric world of salmon fly fly-tying and one of the strangest thefts in modern history.

On a pleasant summer evening in June 2009, a 21-year-old American flutist and world class salmon fly-tier, Edwin Rist, broke into England’s Natural History Museum and stole hundreds of exotic bird skins. Many of these birds had been collected in the 19th century by naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who conceived of the theory of natural selection and evolution independently and at the same time as Charles Darwin. Edwin stole these feathers to sell to other fly-tiers at prices reaching as high as $2,000 for just a few of them.

Johnson heard of this heist from a guide while fly fishing in New Mexico. Intrigued, and also looking for stress relief from running an Iraqi refugee program, Johnson began investigating the feather heist. What started as a welcomed diversion morphed into an international search for the missing feathers and a quest to bring Edwin to justice.

Johnson performed hundreds of interviews across the globe with fly-tiers, feather peddlers, ornithologists, historians, museum directors, detectives, and prosecutors as well as the feather thief himself. Edwin allowed Johnson to interview him for a full day in Germany. Even after all this, some questions are still unanswered. Of the 299 birds stolen, where are the approximately 60 that are unaccounted? Edwin claims he acted alone, but the scope and magnitude of the theft seems highly unlikely it could have been performed by only one person. Did he have an accomplice? Some of these questions will probably remain unanswered.

Johnson further enhances this bizarre tale by providing the reader with background information on the history behind salmon flies and on the originators of the fly-tying pastime. He also educates his audience on British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace and the herculean efforts Wallace made in collecting birds in South America and Indonesia during the Victorian era. Johnson also touches upon the height of the feather trade in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when ladies wore feathers of all sorts, bringing many bird species to the edge of extinction. The Feather Thief is a fun and interesting read — and offers an excellent diversion from the stress of daily life, just as it did for Johnson.

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