The Feather Thief Book Summary - The Feather Thief Book explained in key points

The Feather Thief summary

Kirk Wallace Johnson

Brief summary

The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson is a captivating true crime story that revolves around the highly unusual theft of 299 rare bird specimens from the Tring Museum in England. It explores the motivations behind the crime and the obsessive world of fly tying.

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    The Feather Thief
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    Crime in the Name of Science

    In The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson, we explore a bizarre and captivating true crime story. It begins with a heist involving Edwin Rist, an American flautist, who in 2009, stole rare bird specimens from the British Museum of Natural History. These birds were not just any birds, but crucial pieces of 19th-century scientific research conducted by Alfred Russel Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin. They were meant to remain in the public domain, serving as vital resources for research and education.

    Yet Edwin, fascinated by the forgotten Victorian hobby of salmon fly-tying, saw a different purpose for these rare specimens. Exceptionally colorful and ornate, vintage salmon flies required specific rare feathers, many from birds that were now endangered or extinct. Despite being aware of the scientific value of these birds, Edwin's obsession with fly-tying overpowered his moral judgement, leading to the shocking theft.

    The Obsessive World of Fly-Tying

    The story takes a further dive into the subculture of Victorian salmon fly-tying. This lost art, which has surged back with a niche crowd, involves using rare feathers to create intricate, ornate flies for fishing. Yet, modern practitioners revere the craft more for its creativity and the thrill of sourcing exotic feathers than its practical use in fishing. It is this culture that Edwin found himself deeply absorbed in, a passion that eventually led him down a criminal path.

    On further investigation, Johnson also reveals a darker side to the fly-tying community. Although many within the group felt appalled by Edwin's actions, others admired him for his daring feat. This division exposes the moral quandaries within the fly-tying world, which often involves illegal trading of endangered bird feathers.

    The Pursuit of the Feather Thief

    The author himself enters the narrative when, upon hearing of this peculiar heist, he sets out to trace Edwin's steps and recover the stolen feathers. In his pursuit, Johnson travels from New Mexico to Norway, interviewing fly-tiers and reconstructing the heist from Edwin's perspective. Through this journey, Johnson explores the gripping story of the theft and the subsequent impact on the scientific community.

    Edwin Rist was eventually caught and tried in the British courts. His light sentence, however, leaves a bitter taste, raising questions about the severity of his crime in the eyes of the law. The question of what occurred to the many stolen specimens also remains unsatisfactorily resolved. Many feathers are yet to be recovered, their whereabouts unknown, possibly still circulating in the secretive underworld of the fly-tying community.

    Reflections on Nature and Obsession

    At its core, The Feather Thief poignantly uncovers the complex relationship between human obsession and nature. It forces us to reflect on the questions of ethical responsibility, conservation, and the historical mishandling of natural resources. It spotlights the clash between science enthusiasts, who aim to preserve knowledge for future generations, and hobbyists whose pursuits contribute to the depletion of these shared resources.

    Despite the fascinations and peculiarities of the fly-tying world, Johnson does not lose sight of the underlying tragedy of the tale. The impact of Edwin's theft is monumental, causing irreparable gaps in historical data crucial for current and future scientific research. In conclusion, The Feather Thief spins an enthralling tale of obsession and crime, illuminating the darker corners of eccentric hobbies and their graver implications on scientific research and conservation efforts.

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    What is The Feather Thief about?

    The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson is a captivating non-fiction book that tells the unbelievable story of a man who stole a large number of rare bird skins from a British natural history museum. Mixing elements of true crime, history, and ornithology, the book explores the obsession, deception, and the illicit feather trade that thrives within it.

    Who should read The Feather Thief?

    • Adventure seekers who are fascinated by unusual true stories
    • History enthusiasts interested in lesser-known events
    • Environmentalists concerned about the illegal wildlife trade and its consequences

    About the Author

    Kirk Wallace Johnson is a writer and founder of The List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies. He has worked for the United Nations Refugee Agency and is a recipient of the USAID Impact Award. Johnson's first book, To Be a Friend Is Fatal, tells the story of his time in Fallujah, Iraq. His second book, The Feather Thief, explores the bizarre world of exotic bird feather theft.

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