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The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century

4.02  ·  Rating details ·  17,947 ratings  ·  2,842 reviews
A rollicking true-crime adventure and a thought-provoking exploration of the human drive to possess natural beauty for readers of The Stranger in the Woods, The Lost City of Z, and The Orchid Thief.

On a cool June evening in 2009, after performing a concert at London’s Royal Academy of Music, twenty-year-old American flautist Edwin Rist boarded a train for a suburban outpos
Kindle Edition, 320 pages
Published April 24th 2018 by Viking
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Average rating 4.02  · 
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 ·  17,947 ratings  ·  2,842 reviews

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Apr 07, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson is a 2019 Penguin publication.

This is another book that has sat on my TBR list for an entire year. I added it because it was labeled as true crime and because the reviews were overwhelmingly positive. However, every time I thought about reading it, I changed my mind, because I wasn’t sure if I would fully understand the premise, for one thing, and for another, I was afraid it would bore me silly. It just didn’t sound like a topic that would interest me
J.L.   Sutton
Feb 16, 2019 rated it really liked it
Described as the pursuit of justice in the feather underground, Kirk Wallace Johnson's The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century delivers. Picking this book up, I wasn't sure what to expect. One thing for sure is that this book is about so much more than the crime (Edwin Rist stealing somewhere in the range of $1M worth of rare feathers primarily collected during the Victorian era). In a very accessible way, Johnson recounts the obsession of Victorians to ...more
An online forum recently posted a list of true crime without murder or violence. The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century would fit the bill as no murder nor physical harm befalls any person. Yet is any crime without a victim? Each reader would come up with a different list of who or what was affected by the events that are related in this book. Perhaps not as disturbing as the loss of life or a brutal rape or abuse, but still a story of devastating loss ...more
The Feather Thief is a delightful read that successfully combines many genres – biography, true crime, ornithology, history, travel and memoir – to tell the story of an audacious heist of rare bird skins from the Natural History Museum at Tring in 2009. Somehow I managed not to hear about it at the time, but it was huge news in terms of museum collections and endangered species crime. The tendrils of this thorny case wind around Victorian explorers, tycoons, and fashionistas through to modern ob ...more
Matthew Quann
Aug 23, 2018 rated it liked it
Deciding to read The Feather Thief should really come down to how much you want to know about birds. Birds are animals I'm perfectly willing to appreciate at a distance but, barring a series of childhood budgies, they've never been my particular thing. All the same, I've got mad respect for Darwin, Wallace, and their culture-rupturing scientific discovery made possible by tropical birds, so I thought this book would be up my alley.

The bad thing about this audiobook is that the first half seemed
J.K. Grice
May 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: true-crime
FLY: "A fishhook dressed (as with feathers or tinsel) to suggest an insect."

While not a fly fisherman, I myself am an avid fisherman. The author Kirk Johnson was fly fishing with a friend several years ago when he learned the fascinating and bizarre story of a young American man named Edwin Rist. At the age of 20, Edwin broke into the British Museum of Natural History's ornithological building and stole 299 rare bird specimens (skins). Many of these birds had been collected by the famous natural
Alice Lippart
Haven't read something so engrossing all year. What a fascinating and exciting book! ...more
Leslie Ray
Jan 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
What an adventure centered around the dedication of the author to try to rectify a theft from the Natural History Museum in Tring (England). The thief had an obsession with obtaining rare bird feathers for making fishing lures, but not necessarily to fish with. Apparently there is a group of people who will pay tons of money for the rarest of bird feathers to create these lures despite the fact that these birds are killed for this very purpose. There is a lot of history in this book on the destr ...more
LeAnne: GeezerMom
Jan 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Seabiscuit. The River of Doubt. The Devil and the White City. Into the Wild. The Perfect Storm.

If you're a fan of these fascinating works of non-fiction, then grab hold of this story of the feather thief before he gets away with it. The book was recommended to me by a friend who is not known for reading much, and his thrilled response to it had me intrigued.

There is a theft involved, of course, but Kirk Wallace Johnson does a fine job - enough to make me wince repeatedly - of bringing into focu
This is the truly amazing story of how a twenty year old American flute prodigy pulled off an unbelievable museum heist of rare and exotic bird skins and feathers. Edwin Risk loved music but also was quite enthralled in the world of fly fish tying. He spent hours perfecting his craft and while still a young teenager, became a master tier within the competitive and elusive world. In 2009 while studying at London's Royal Academy of Music, Edwin began to put forth a plan to steal rare bird specimen ...more
Emily Goenner
Jul 09, 2018 rated it liked it
I flew through the first two sections. Johnson provides a history and tells the heist story in a way that makes feathers fascinating. The last section, though, which tells his story of his obsession, was less interesting to me and a shift from telling the story to personalizing the story; the end didn't work for me but the book is well worth the read. ...more
Feb 04, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Feather Thief tells the true-crime tale of Edwin Rist robbing the British Museum of Natural History of hundreds of irreplaceable bird skins, and the greed, obsession, and twisted logic that had compelled him to do so.

For me, the most interesting part of this book was the discussion on birds and how knowledge about them led to scientific breakthroughs around sexual selection. I also enjoyed learning about what museums do with old bird specimens, and how they contribute to scientific progress
Not reviewed, sadly, but I plan on rereading it. Have upgraded my rating to 5 stars this February 2021 because I find myself recommending this book to everyone.

Rating: ★★★★½ - Favourites of the year; hope to revisit!

I have a very thorough tagging system on LibraryThing. These serve as memory aids.

Tags: 19th Century, 21st Century Literature, Nonfiction, Biography, Alfred Russel Wallace, Crime, True Crime, Heist, History, Natural History, Science, Biology, Animals, Birds, Ornithology, Bird Feat
Kasa Cotugno
Reminds me of The Orchid Thief in its readability and theme.
Jerrie (redwritinghood)
May 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I was absolutely captivated by this book! Who knew there was this obsessive group who made salmon fishing ties using the feathers of endangered birds? Amazingly, they often don’t even fish with them and the salmon themselves don’t really care what’s on the tie. For many, it is an art form and an obsession so strong they commit burglary to feed it. This was a great look at wildlife research and a strange subculture at odds with it.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia
I found the first third of this book hyper-exciting, probably because I love reading about 19th century naturalists. The feather trade for fly-fishermen was interesting. But eventually my attention wandered and frankly I wanted the feather thief of the story to get a boulder dropped on his head. Good book, but in the movie adaptation maybe we can have him eaten by a giant bird.
I fortuitously happened upon this title in fellow Goodread’s reviews, and am so delighted for that chance! This is where GR is so invaluable to those of us seeking reading material- perhaps less mainstream- less visible on “bestseller lists”- yet so very, very excellent, and notable in this case as a finalist for the Edgar Award, and a BEST BOOK of the year on many lists- including a semi-finalist for GR Choice Awards.

Author Kirk Wallace Johnson found his subject matter quite circuitously, as h
Umut Rados
Jun 09, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites-2020
I absolutely loved this book. It was so fascinating.
It's one of those non-fiction books that makes you reach out for Google countless times, or buy other books because you discovered things you didn't know existed, or you didn't know you were interested.
That's why I find this book so accomplished.
It's about a guy who was obsessed about fly-tying, and eventually broke into Natural History museum to steal irreplaceable bird species and feathers to use for this purpose.
The story takes us to the
Jamie Canaves
FANTASTIC Nonviolent True Crime
I had wanted to read this one for the nonviolent true crime roundup
I’d done but hadn’t been able to get a copy until now. Now if you’re thinking “But really how interesting can bird specimen theft be?” let me just tell you this book was super interesting from beginning to end, and read like a thriller that I couldn’t put down. Just 10% into the book I felt as if I’d read 10 books worth of information and adventure. You start with a museum heist by a 20-year-old flu
Aug 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Kirk Johnson is known as the founder of the List Project, for resettling Iraqi allies. After some successes, he became despondent, and found this interesting story. In 2009, the flutist Edwin Rist burgled the Natural History Museum at Tring, and stole 399 bird skins. Why?

It turns out that these were valuable bird skins, with beautiful ornamental feathers. These feathers receive high prices from collectors who practice the obscure hobby of Victorian fly-tying.

And why are these bird skins in the
Trigger warnings: animal death, blood, a lot of bullshit around autism.

I've been hearing really good things about this book for the past couple of months, so when I stumbled across it in the true crime section of my library, I picked it up. I found it a struggle to get into, to be perfectly honest, and I can't quite pinpoint why. Maybe it's the fact that so much of the story revolves around making fishing flies and I genuinely cannot imagine being even vaguely interested in making fishing flies
Jul 30, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I don't very often read non-fiction and when I do it's usually of the true crime variety involving a serial killer/murder/missing person, etc., but after reading the description of this book I was very intrigued. There was a lot more history involved than I was expecting but it was quite interesting and I feel like I learned a lot about the reason many birds are extinct or nearing extinction and also more than I ever wanted to know about fly tying. Who knew it was such an addictive pastime! It's ...more
Joy D
In 2009, a twenty-year-old gifted American flautist breaks into the British Natural History Museum at Tring, 30 miles northwest of London, and steals three hundred rare birds whose exotic feathers are in demand in the fly-tying community. This young man does not fish. He ties flies as a hobby and an art form. Exotic feathers are used by fly tiers to replicate 19th century designs. These feathers are increasingly rare and, thus, extremely valuable. It sounds like outlandish fiction, but this is a ...more
Kristen Beverly
This is such a weird but fantastic book. I can’t tell you how many times I thought, i mean, we’re talking about feathers, right? Feathers? Aren’t there bigger issues going on in the world right now? But it sucks you in & somehow you find yourself thinking, what happened to those feathers? Where did they go? What did Edwin do with them? So crazy how it twists your mind into actually caring about some feathers and what happened to them. :)
Laura Noggle
May 06, 2019 rated it really liked it
One Sentence Summary:

An ornithological true crime heist with a comprehensive history of the devastation mankind has inflicted on various avian species.

Favorite Quote:

“Initially, the story of the Tring heist—filled with quirky and obsessive individuals, strange birds, curio-filled museums, archaic fly recipes, Victorian hats, plume smugglers, grave robbers, and, at the heart of it all, a flute-playing thief—had been a welcome diversion from the unrelenting pressure of my work with refugees.”

An i
Randal White
As a fly fisherman, fly tier, and former policeman, I found this book to be an absolute home run!
A young "savant", Edwin Rist, had everything going for him. A brilliant flautist, he and his brother (also a savant), discovered the art of tying Atlantic Salmon flies. Throwing themselves into the hobby, they soon discovered the extreme costs and rarity of some of the required feathers.
These feathers come from some of the rarest birds in the world, such as the Resplendent Quetzal, the King Bird of
Apr 30, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Rarely am I the outlier for non-fiction reads in this category. I sure am this time. 2.5 stars to be fair, but I cannot round it up. The last section, is overlong and as tedious as trying to explain one person's obsession in a sport or hobby that is for most humans not even a "known" for its process/method.

It's told too in a way that made me seem to have to pick the pieces of the whole together myself somehow. Others seem not to feel that aspect at all. I did.

And there also is a kind of "eyes"
Jul 12, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition

Read this recently for my in person book club. It was an introduction to a world I never knew existed, where people are obsessed with obtaining feathers from rare and endangered species of birds in order to tie flies they are never going to fish with. The first 2/3 of the book is like a good English mystery with some backstory about the natural history collectors of the 19th/early 20th century, who roamed the world seeking samples of new and exotic species. I was riveted. Unfortunately, it loses
April Cote
Jul 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I read this nonstop, completely drawn into this bizarre true crime. Who knew a crime about a man stealing a historical collection and thousands of dollars worth of dead birds from a museum so he could use the feathers to make salmon fly catchers could be so fascinating!
unknown pokemon
Sep 14, 2020 rated it liked it

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Kirk W. Johnson is the founder of the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies, and the author of To Be a Friend is Fatal: the Fight to Save the Iraqis America Left Behind.

His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and Foreign Policy, among others.

Prior to the List Project, Johnson

Articles featuring this book

If we need a paperweight, we're grabbing a hardcover. Otherwise, we're big fans of paperbacks. They're the lighter, less expensive option—the...
55 likes · 19 comments
“In an era when women were expected to remain at home and had yet to be granted the right to vote or own property, the abolition of the feather trade was ultimately their work.” 3 likes
“This consideration,” he concluded, “must surely tell us that all living things were not made for man.” 3 likes
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