26 April 2018
My thanks to the publishers for my copy of this book
This book really took me by surprise as I had no idea that bird feathers were such a valuable commodity, and, as such, are open to thievery on really a grand scale. That's just what happened in the summer of 2009 when twenty year old musician, Edward Rist broke into the Natural History Museum at Tring in Hertfordshire and stole a huge assortment of wild bird specimens which had been collected centuries before by some of the very first naturalists.
I expected the book to mainly concentrate on this audacious theft, which of course it does in some detail, however, the early part of the book concentrates on the obsession with collecting natural specimens, initially for curiosity and then for scientific research purposes, but also in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for use by the fashion industry. I was shocked to learn that by 1900 some two hundred million North American birds were killed every year in order to satisfy the need for bird feathers for use in the millinery trade, and, as bird numbers depleted so the net worth of their precious feathers increased.
By the time Edward Rist had his fascination for bird feathers, their usage had become consistent with the world of salmon fishing, where intricate flies, made from original and highly prized rare bird feathers, exchanged hands for large sums of money. The chapters which detail the Tring Heist are absolutely fascinating, and as the reasons for Rist's theft becomes apparent, so the strange and very secret subculture that exists around fly fishing comes vividly to life. I was astonished to learn of the lengths that some people are prepared to go in order to obtain the feathers they crave, and I was equally disturbed to find out that large sums are paid for extremely rare bird feathers.
The book is an absolute page turner, beautifully written by a man who was determined to see this story told, and he does so with real flair, and fine attention to detail, so that even if you know absolutely nothing about birds, like me, or indeed fly fishing, like me, you can't help but be drawn into this fascinating true crime story. There are also a number of very interesting photographs and illustrations which help to put the subject into context.
I read The Feather Thief constantly surprised, and more than a little upset at the thought that so many billions of beautiful birds have died to satisfy our whims and fancies. I will never look at displays of bird feathers in quite the same way ever again.
Kirk Wallace Johnson is the author of To Be a Friend is Fatal and the founder of the List Project. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, among other publications. He is the recipient of fellowships from Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, the American Academy in Berlin, and the USC Annenberg Center. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, son, and daughter.
Twitter @KirkWJohnson #TheFeatherThief