Cake
  • Log In
  • Sign Up
    • When you think of a theft, you're typically thinking of the standard items - money, gold, jewels.

      You're not thinking of feathers. But that's the story that's told in Kirk Wallace Johnson's truth-is-stranger-than-fiction book, The Feather Thief.

      The author himself, Kirk, is a fascinating individual: he served in served in Iraq with USAID in Baghdad, Fallujah as the first coordinator for reconstruction, then returned to the United States and started a nonprofit, The List Project, to help translators, civil engineers and others who aided the United States during the Iraq War to be resettled in America. With the immense pressures on his shoulders and urgent requests coming in from refugees every day, Kirk took up fly fishing as a way to experience nature and relax.

      One day, Kirk's fly fishing guide Spencer Seim shows him a vintage Salmon Fly. Fascinated by the striking colors and designs, Kirk is stunned to hear the story of Edwin Rist, one of the best contemporary young fly-tiers who broke into the British Museum to steal dead birds for flies.

      Fascinated by this twist on a classic crime caper, Kirk is driven to try to seek out the why and wherefore behind Edwin's story.

      To do so, he must first outline why these dead birds are so valuable. Kirk takes us back to the 19th Century, the era of Charles Darwin and his lesser-known but extremely influential contemporary Alfred Russel Wallace.

      In the mid 19th Century natural history notoriety land-grab - when the rush to discover and classify new species was a way to make one's career - Wallace was determined to make his mark. Beset by extreme difficulties on his lengthy expedition to South America that forced him to lose all of his meticulously-gathered work on birds, monkeys and more, Wallace had to find additional creatures that captured people's imaginations and that were so remote geographically as to allow him the chance to be the first to rigorously study them scientifically.

      His choice? Birds of Paradise.

    • Wallace was a natural history cataloguing machine. Within a month of arriving in Singapore in 1854, "Wallace had sent nearly a thousand beetles from more than seven hundred species to Stevens. To gather such a haul, he kept a grueling schedule. Each morning he was up at five-thirty to analyze and store the insects collected the previous day. Guns and ammunition were readied, and insect nets repaired. He'd have breakfast at eight, then head into the jungle for four or five hours of collecting, after which he would return home to kill and pin insects until four p.m., when dinner was served. Every night before bed, he'd spend an hour or two recording specimens in his registry."

      This passion for preserving the natural world to share with scientists and enthusiasts back in England extended beyond the insect kingdom. As Wallace sailed "from Singapore to Malacca, Borneo, Bali, Lombok, and Makassar" he gathered "some thirty thousand specimens, six thousand of which were distinct species."

      When Wallace finally arived in Aru, Papua New Guinea, finding guides to get him into the jungle and overcoming various diseases, he finally set eyes on a King Bird of Paradise.

      He was the first naturalist to ever witness a "dancing party" of the Greater Bird of Paradise.

      For five years, Wallace traveled the Malay Archipelago, and in the midst of a malarial fever, realized the principles behind the idea of "natural selection" at the same time as Charles Darwin, who was separately working on his own book. The two were able to announce the discovery simultaneously to the Linnean Society, and remained good friends throughout their lives.

      Over his many years of travels in the Malay Archipelago, Wallace was able to capture and preserve 8,050 birds. More importantly than just the physical specimens was the geographic data that he captured along with each specimen. Referred to as "The Father of biogeography," Wallace noted in detail on each specimen where it was captured, creating a body of invaluable scientific data that would be used by generations of scientists to come to study everything from climate change to species diversity.

    • Even at the same time that Alfred Russel Wallace and other scientists like him were trying to catalogue and preserve the natural kingdom, the forces of fashion were at work.

      Victoria women's fashion was obsessed with feathers on hats. The more exotic the bird or the feather, the more of a status symbol. "In 1886 a prominent ornithologist conducted an informal survey of the extent of the feather fever during an afternoon stroll through an uptown New York shopping district. He counted seven hundred ladies wearing hats, three quarters of them sporting whole skins. They weren't poaching birds out of Central Park; ordinary backyard birds carried little status in the hierarchy of feather fashion. The species in vogue were Birds of Paradise, Parrots, Toucans, Quetzals, Hummingbirds, the Cock of the Rock, Snowy Egrets, and Ospreys."

      "When the Titanic went down in 1912, the most valuable and highly insured merchandise in its hold was forty crates of feathers, second only to diamonds in the commodities market." As bird numbers plummeted, it took the efforts of groups like the Audobon Society to change the public opinion of feathers. With the passage of the Lacey Act in 1900, and President Theodore Roosevelt creating the first bird refuge in Florida to save the Snowy Egret, the stemming of the tide of feather fever finally started to shift - but never went away entirely.

      Which brings us to fly making.

    • The art of Salmon Fly tying, as outlined by Victorian-era influencer George Mortimer Kelson, involved the most colorful and rare of feathers to capture this esteemed fish. "To tie like Kelson, his readers would need a silver monkey, a gray squirrel, pig's wool, silk from the Orient, fur from the Arctic, a hare's face, and a goat's beard...Kelson rattled throug his current invetory of bird skins: the Banded Chatterer (now endangered), the Great American Cock, the Nankeen Night Heron, the South American Bittern, and the Ecuadorian Cock of the Rock. But there was one skin that Kelson prized above all; 'The greatest find that has fallen to my lot is the Golden Bird of Paradise. May this luck be your luck, brother Fishermen, as it has been mine! It will only cost you £10!"

      These birds were rare and valuable more than a hundred years ago. Now, protected by international legislation, and many greatly endangered, they are even more so.

      The book then cuts to the modern-day story of Edwin Rist, an incredibly precocious young man who passionately studied flute - and then fly tying. Admitted to community college at age 13 to study fine arts, Edwin discovered fly tying at the age of 11. Challenging himself to tie increasingly complex flies, Edwin found himself flummoxed by lack of access to rare feathers that were used in Victorian-era Salmon flies that were seen as the paragons of the art form.

      In 2006 after graduating college at age 16, Edwin was accepted to the Royal Academy of Music in London to continue his flute studies - and that's where he was introduced to the idea of the British Natural History Museum at Tring.

      The Tring's vast collections, many of which were compiled before the British National Museum was even formally incorporated, included Alfred Russel Wallace's priceless bird specimens.

      What follows is a fascinating glimpse into the world of crime, obsession, and underground feather sales, along with a heartbreaking and sobering underscoring of the importance of scientific research as these priceless specimens are lost. I don't want to spoil the twists and turns of the story, but suffice it to say that it's definitely worth a read.