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Environment and Science

The Feather Thief


Back in the early 20th century a four acre spit of land was a thriving bird rookery in the Indian River Lagoon just below Sebastian. Beautiful herons, egrets, spoonbills and pelicans were so plentiful it was hard to fathom that these birds might soon disappear.

Then came the plume hunters. They stalked the local birds for their dramatic colorful plumage coveted by the booming New York City millinery trade that produced fancy hats for the most fashionable ladies of society who were in a frenzy over feathered hats.

After a while Sebastian boat builder Paul Kroegel had seen enough. He developed his own conservation plan by positioning both his small sailboat and his 5'6'' frame between him and the faster boats of the bird hunters. He wore a big hat and carried a double-barreled 10-gauge shotgun to make his point. After President Roosevelt signed an executive order establishing Pelican Island as America's first National Wildlife Refuge, Kroegel was named the first refuge warden and remained in the area protecting the population of birds until his death decades later.

A little more than a century later England had its own astonishing endangered bird tale. Skillfully told by author Kirk Johnson, The Feather Thief  (Viking, 248 pages) reads like a classic crime thriller, the story of an unlikely thief and his even more unlikely crime that weaves together a British museum break-in, the development of evolutionary theory, endangered birds, greed and the clandestine underworld of fly-tying masters into a spellbinding tale.

Early on the book explores how Walter Rothschild, a black sheep of the wealthy banking dynasty, amassed “the greatest private collection of bird skins and natural history specimens ever acquired by a single person” and which formed the basis of the Natural History Museum’s collection that Edwin Rist would plunder. The exotic plumes included Birds-of-Paradise, Blue Chatterers and Resplendent Quetzals among others.

Late one evening in June 2009, after performing a concert at London’s Royal Academy of Music, 20-year old American virtuoso flautist Edwin Rist boarded a train for a suburban outpost of the museum. Home to one of the largest ornithological collections in the world, the Tring Museum had not catalogued the feathers in years. It's 1,500 cabinet trays brimming with rare bird specimens whose gorgeous feathers were worth astonishing amounts of money to the men who shared Rist’s obsession: the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying.

Breaking a rear window and crawling inside, Rist stuffed hundreds of rare bird skins into a suitcase he'd brought along. Many of those birds bore tags identifying that they'd been collected 150 years earlier by a naturalist named Alfred Russel Wallace, a colleague of Charles Darwin. Rist escaped into the darkness and headed back by train to his flat in London.

It took over a year for British police detectives to trace the heist to Rist who by then is thought to have  made a fortune online, illegally selling the bird skins or bags of assorted feathers to salmon fly-tying devotees. Of the 299 bird skins Rist had stolen, only 174 were found in his apartment still intact; out of those, only 102 specimens retained their labels. Without their labels identifying exactly where the birds had been captured, the specimens were no longer of scientific value. If the missing birds couldn't be recovered, it would be an even bigger blow to the scientific record.

Though it's non-fiction, The Feather Thief contains many of the elements of a classic thriller. Acting as an amateur detective author Johnson travels to Germany and Norway to interview Rist and his chief accomplice Long Nguyen. Along the way he explains how the esoteric hobby of fly-tying has become one of the internet’s stranger and more obsessive hang-outs. The feathers often bring top dollar to practitioners, many of whom lurk online in something called "The Feather Underground." The business still flourishes today.

The feathers Rist stole were so rare that they were valued at £400,000 ($535,000). But their value to science was priceless. Johnson is clearly disturbed that Rist-- now a professional flautist in New York-- essentially got away with his crime, serving no jail time. He merely repaid cash for stealing priceless and irreplaceable scientific specimens, a third of which were sold and are now untraceable.

“In the war between knowledge and greed,” Johnson observes, “it sure seemed as though greed was winning.”