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Book Review: The Feather Thief

I’ve got my conference roadtrip routine dialed in. This spring I drove to the Northeast Natural History Conference (215 miles each way), the Northeast Alpine Stewardship Gathering (150 miles), the University of Maine Climate Change Institute’s Borns Symposium (250 miles), and (as a fan, not an ecologist) the New England Division 1 College Men’s Ultimate Frisbee Regional Tournament (100 miles). I packed insulated mugs for both hot and iced coffee, a trusty ice scraper for the always-lovely April ice storm in northern Vermont, a light-weight wrap to chase the air conditioning chill on my bare arms after ducking inside on the actually-lovely first 70° days of spring in Maine, and a garment bag of professional clothes to replace my ripped maternity jeans/driving uniform upon rolling into the conference center. I hit the best bakeries (King Arthur’s, Beach Pea, Florence Pie Bar). And on the last few legs, I listened to an amazing, engrossing audiobook: Kirk Wallace Johnson’s The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century.

 

My favorite moment in The Feather Thief is not the poignant description of Alfred Russel Wallace watching four years worth of his South American collections burn at sea from the lifeboat of the Helen, or the almost heroic depiction of the generations of curators of natural history collections shepherding scientific information through the ages. It is the suitcase scene.

 

Author Kirk Wallace Johnson and his wife are packing a suitcase: a laundry-laden re-enactment of Edwin Rist’s 2009 theft of hundreds of bird skins from England’s Natural History Museum at Tring:

 

“Do you think two hundred ninety-nine birds would’ve fit in just one?”

…Seeing where her questions led—that multiple suitcases would suggest multiple people—I got out a medium-size suitcase. Having seen the window at the Tring, I knew he couldn’t have fit one much larger through it. Working together, we spent the next hour building a pile of fake birds. A rolled-up pair of dress socks formed a Blue Chatter. She folded several dozen T-shirts and dish towels in the approximate size of an Indian Crow, and used her leggings to fashion Respendent Quetzal tails.

We started packing. Marie-Josée, consulting the Tring’s spreadsheet, counted off each species. When the suitcase was halfway full, we were already at eighty birds. Of course, our experiment was hardly scientific—my washcloth Flame Bowerbirds might have been a bit large—but it seemed as though it would’ve been difficult to fit all of them in a single suitcase.

 

By this point in the book, the reader (in my case, the listener) has followed rapt while Johnson evolved from a memoirist trying to escape writer’s block through fly-fishing to an amateur detective with an accordion file of notes on the history of biogeography and conservation biology. In the prologue, when he first hears of Edwin Rist’s theft, Johnson is running a foundation committed to helping Iraqi refugees who have worked for U.S.-affiliated organizations to obtain visas to the U.S. (This American Life listeners may remember Johnson’s story from Nancy Updike’s interview in episode 607). He knows almost nothing about fly-tying, museum bird collections, Alfred Russel Wallace, or how these topics could possible overlap. The Feather Thief weaves these niche interests and the unbelievable robbery of 299 bird skins from the Tring into a compelling, larger-than-life narrative that traces Wallace’s birds of paradise from Southeast Asia to Victorian trends in hat fashion to the International Fly Tying Symposium in Somerset, New Jersey.

 

When Johnson begins packing his suitcase with laundry-birds, we are deep into the story — the thief has been caught, the case is closed, the Tring curators are sifting through the remains of bird skins separated from their tags, including Ziploc bags of feathers plucked for individual sale and returned to the museum by a paltry few of the fly-tiers who discovered their eBay purchases were stolen goods. In the suitcase scene are the echoes of all the travels of both the bird and human characters of the book — Wallace’s voyages, the ships laden with feathers for fancy hats, the bird skins and other natural history collections spirited to the English countryside and away from bombed out London during World War II, the American flautist studying at the Royal Academy of Music, the stolen bird skins mailed to eBay customers across the globe, Johnson’s own travels from Iraq to New Mexico’s Red River, to New Jersey, South Africa, Germany, and Norway tracking down fly-tiers associated with Rist.

 

Many of the legs of Johnson’s trip will be familiar to ecologists. As a community, we know the namesake of the Wallace Line, we’re familiar with the story of how Wallace’s correspondence coerced the plodding Darwin to finally, publicly share his theory of natural selection, we know that some of the earliest major conservation policy was driven by women who were appalled by the hidden cost of other women’s decorative hat choices, and we can expound on the value of natural history collections. Though, The Feather Thief might make us think twice before again exclaiming broadly, “Given [natural history collections] breadth of importance and relevance, it would be difficult to imagine anyone dismissing the value of natural history collections to society relative to the research, education, and training of next generation scientists” (Bradley et al 2014). Throughout the book, the value of natural history collections to society is routinely dismissed — the tags associated with Wallace’s bird skins are tossed aside and the record-keeping at the Tring is questioned by fly-tiers who suggest the museum should sell their extra skins to fly-tiers instead of keeping them in musty drawers.

 

Reflecting on the scientific loss related to his crime, Rist cavalierly (and wrongly) says, “after a certain period of time—I think about a hundred years—technically speaking, all of the scientific data that can be extracted from them has been extracted from them. You can no longer use DNA, because what you would want to do it for is to prolong and help living birds, which hasn’t really worked anyway, because they’re still going extinct, or will go extinct depending on what happens with the rainforests.” This scene reminded me of another science-heist book, Sex on the Moon, in which a NASA intern steals a lab safe full of moon rocks for kicks. The scientist whose samples were taken tells the FBI that the safe also contained his notebooks documenting thirty years of research. The thief “didn’t remember seeing any green notebooks in the safe. As far as he knew, they hadn’t thrown any thing out, other than the safe itself, so if there were notebooks, they’d still be either in Sandra’s storage shed or in the suitcase that had been with them in the Sheraton. But [the thief] didn’t really want to talk about some phantom notebooks.” In both cases, the scientific value of the stolen goods barely registers with the young, white males who believe they are entitled to these rare items. In The Feather Thief this tension between the curators who mourn the loss of the skins and tags, and the general public’s perception of the heist — a hilarious tale of an American kid robbing a British museum for feathers so he can tie flys that no one will ever actually fish with! — reflects our blind spot; we, as scientists, do not clearly understand the difference between how we value natural history collections within our community and how these same collections are valued by those outside of science.

 

Finally, I want to note one failing in the book. As a former natural history museum intern (shout out to Worcester’s EcoTarium) and herbarium researcher, I bumped on the clumsy way that Johnson described the record keeping associated with museum specimens. He never explained the accessioning process — how museums enter items, like skins or specimens, into their collections. I think that this oversight diminishes Johnson’s eureka moment when he, late in the book, receives the Tring’s spreadsheet of stolen birds: “it meticulously noted the exact number of skins gathered from Edwin’s apartment the morning of the arrest (174), the number of those with tags (102) and without (72), and the number of skins subsequently returned by mail (19).” Later, this same spreadsheet returns but when Johnson reads the column headings aloud, the first one is “Number of Specimens Missing in July 2009.” This column sounds like it was sourced from a museum database, while the first description reflects numbers collected by the police from a crime scene.

 

Johnson documents the fly-tying community’s dismissal of the Tring’s records — “‘Ask Tring the last time they counted all their birds!'”— but drops the ball on presenting clear, compelling evidence to support the museum’s count of 299 lost skins. It’s never explicitly explained how the 299 tally is calculated, which is a shame because I imagine that opening the empty drawers in the Tring, matching the tags of the left-behind birds — juvenile males and females without the prized technicolor feathers — to the accession numbers and digital photographs of museum records, creating a Missing List for each species and drawer, all of this would be high drama while also offering a window into the work of natural history collections. What specific research had these skins, the missing and the left-behind, contributed to in the past? Which birds had donated DNA or geographic information to scientists before the heist? I imagined these notes, papers, and reports exist but Johnson doesn’t cover them, except to offer general examples of the kinds of research that rely on collections. And here’s the thing: The List Project literally started as a spreadsheet. Johnson knows spreadsheets. Why is this one, which figures so prominently in Johnson’s moment as a main character, which drives his detective work as he dives deeper into the case, so poorly-described? Just another unsolved mystery of The Feather Thief…

 

References:

Johnson, Kirk Wallace. The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century. Viking, 2018.

Robert D. Bradley, Lisa C. Bradley, Heath J. Garner, Robert J. Baker; Assessing the Value of Natural History Collections and Addressing Issues Regarding Long-Term Growth and Care, BioScience, Volume 64, Issue 12, 1 December 2014, Pages 1150–1158, https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biu166

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