• Log In
  • Sign Up
    • 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.