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

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

Many birds including the Snowy Egret and the exotic Birds of Paradise almost went extinct at the turn of the last century because of their plumage. Ladies wanted the most extravagant feathers for their hats, sometimes the whole taxidermied bird. Once word got around that these beautiful creatures were in danger of being wiped out because of this cruel fashion trend women banded together to stop the feather trade. But there was one group of people who never stopped trading in exotic feathers: the fly tier.

This is the story of an obsessed fly tier, who also happened to be a virtuoso flutist, who broke into a Natural History museum and made off with hundreds of rare bird skins to be sold whole and by their individual feathers to the salmon fly tying community. It’s one of the odder true crime books I’ve read but also one of the most maddening. There are rules against possessing endangered and extinct animal products yet this seems to fall through the cracks even here in New Jersey — the international fly tying community gathers in Somerset, NJ every year — and rare feathers and bird skins change hands there.

The perpetrator of the crimes claimed that the birds were moldering in the museum and he was making better use of them. Most of the birds were without their identification tags showing date and place of collection when they were reclaimed so are therefore useless. He ruined the birds collected by Alfred Russel Wallace during his Malaysia expedition where he came up with the idea of evolution at the same time as Darwin. Samples from the specimens he stole once were used to definitively prove that the mercury levels in the oceans were rising; there is still more we can learn but this priceless record is now destroyed.

A very readable account of the theft, fly tying and the other side roads the author takes you down to attempt to understand this crime.

By | 2018-06-22T08:24:51+00:00 June 22nd, 2018|SCLSNJ Recommended Reads|
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