Mystery of the Purloined Feathers

by Fran Withrow

My husband loves fly fishing, and occasionally I have watched as he sits at his desk, painstakingly tying flies using ordinary feathers from Cabela’s or Orvis. Then I read “The Feather Thief” and learned not everyone is satisfied with dyed turkey feathers. There are fanatical fly tiers out there who yearn for rare feathers to make specific flies.

Unlike my husband, the most ardent fly tying hobbyists do not actually fish. The satisfaction for them comes from tying intricate flies, and high on the list is a recipe for “salmon flies,” which calls for extremely rare feathers. Uh oh.

And how’s this for irony: salmon don’t care if the fly is a feather or a tuft of fur, yet hobbyists spend incredible amounts of money trying to obtain and create these rare, highly desired flies.

One such obsessed fly tier is Edwin Rist, an American student who was studying flute at London’s Royal Academy of Music in 2009. Edwin Rist wanted some of these rare feathers so desperately he broke into the British Museum of Natural History and stole an appalling 299 rare bird specimens, some dating back 150 years. He began selling bird skins and packets of feathers online. Though he was caught, many of the birds remained missing. Where did they go?

Author Kirk Wallace Johnson was fly fishing himself when he heard about this crime and the ensuing mystery. Struggling with burnout from his job helping Iraqi refugees, Johnson decided to take a break and do some digging himself. Tenaciously, over a period of five years, he investigated, learning about rare birds like the Spangled Cotinga, a gorgeous bright blue bird with a red chin and throat, and the breathtaking, four foot long Resplendent Quetzal. It is illegal to buy or sell packets of Quetzal feathers but, sadly, they can easily be found online.

Johnson begins his story by describing the dedicated work of early naturalists like Alfred Russel Wallace, who spent many years gathering thousands of bird specimens and was a contemporary of Charles Darwin. Johnson explains how the British Museum got the bird skins and the importance of the accompanying tags, stating the date and location where each bird was found. This is critical data for scientists who continue to learn about how birds migrate, how their DNA changes over time, and other useful information.

Johnson writes with disarming honesty about his quest to find the missing bird skins and their tags.  This is a guy who knows he is no Sherlock Holmes, yet he is dedicated and tireless at his task. What he finds is surprising and even has a little twist at the end. Just like a real detective story!

Since this is non-fiction, the ending isn’t all tied up in a neat package. Justice is not served. But the truth is revealed, and, thanks to Kirk Wallace Johnson, the Feather Thief will not slip away without a trace. Perhaps this book will raise awareness about protecting rare birds, those left alive as well as ones captured long ago.


“The Feather Thief”

by Kirk Wallace Johnson



308 pages


About CharlesM 294 Articles
North of the James, is an award-winning general interest publication with a regional focus that has been serving the region for over 20 years. North of the James presents business profiles, book and restaurant reviews, a calendar of events, and much more

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