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The Feather Thief

4.02  ·  Rating details ·  11,934 ratings  ·  1,964 reviews
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 outpost of the British Museum of Natural History. Home to one of the largest ornithological collections in the world, the Tring museum was full of rare bird specimens whose gorgeous feathers were worth ...more
Paperback, 336 pages
Published April 23rd 2019 by Penguin Books (first published April 24th 2018)
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Average rating 4.02  · 
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 ·  11,934 ratings  ·  1,964 reviews

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J.L.   Sutton
Feb 16, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...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 ...more
J.K. Grice
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
Matthew Quann
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
Alice Lippart
Haven't read something so engrossing all year. What a fascinating and exciting book!
Leslie Ray
Jan 13, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
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 ...more
LeAnne: GeezerMom
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
Kasa Cotugno
Reminds me of The Orchid Thief in its readability and theme.
Jerrie (redwritinghood)
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.
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
Emily Goenner
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.
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
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
Rating: - Favourites of the year; hope to revisit!
Review: Not reviewed (edit)
Tags: 19th Century, 21st Century Literature, Nonfiction, Biography, Alfred Russel Wallace, Crime, True Crime, Heist, History, Natural History, Science, Biology, Animals, Birds, Ornithology, Bird Feathers, Exotic Birds, Birds of Paradise, Fishing, Fly Fishing, Fly Tying, Obsession, Specimens, Online Community, Museums, British Museum of Natural History, Mystery, Thriller, Victorian, England, Court Cases, Aspergers,
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
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.
Laura Noggle
May 06, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.”

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. :)
April Cote
Jul 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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!
The Captain
Oct 12, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
Ahoy there mateys! This be one a true crime book about one of the greatest naturalist thefts of all time – of bird skins from the British Museum of Natural History. The reason – their feathers for use in fishing lures. Aye matey, ye did read that correctly. Fishing lures that aren’t even used to fish. Who would think that that would be a big business? Well this book looks into the theft of the birds by a 20 year old flutist studying in London. That part ended unsatisfactorily by me standards. ...more
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"
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
Jul 12, 2019 rated it liked it

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
Aug 24, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Bill
When I chose this book, I thought it was fiction. It is not. It's history. It's a mystery. It's true crime. It's very interesting and opens a world that I had no idea existed.
Seems the author acquired the obsession the people in the book already had.
This is a story about a guy who steals a bunch of dead birds from a museum.
How is this even a full-sized book and not a kid's story?

Ok, it's actually about a different guy who got into fly fishing as therapy and finds out about the first guy who stole a bunch of dead birds from a museum.
This shouldn't be an entire book. It should maybe be a two-part article.

But it's also about the history of naturalism and how Victorian men went haywire, collecting things from all over the world to be
Jan 04, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: book-club
This was our book club pick. I enjoyed reading this book and found much of it interesting. I am not into fishing or fly tying, but that's not the point of the book. What is fascinating is the obsessive aspect of fly tying and its roots in a crazy but popular 19th c writer who insisted that rare and beautiful birds needed to be harvested to create perfect flys to attract specific fish in specific streams.

The book also talks about the obsession for birds and feathers in 19th c fashion, and how
Jim Cooper
Five stars because the history was great - the Victorian feather-mania, the Victorian feather-mania backlash, Walter Rothschild/Tring, the evolution of fly-tying - all of that was excellent and worth the time in the book. I also like Rist's story, and what he did, and the reaction to it in the community, the trial, etc.

I felt like the end of the book - the author's hunt for the truth - was unfulfilling and could have been left out. But that's a small knock on a good history book.
I picked this book up for a couple of reading challenges, but I ended up really enjoying it (it's surprisingly difficult to find a non-violent true crime book! Or, actually is it surprising? Maybe it's totally expected).

I basically read this in two sittings, one yesterday morning, and one after dinner. It's only 254 pages long, and it's a fast read (the rest of the page count is extensive notes, sources and an index). Johnson became personally obsessed with the story of a twenty year old
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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
“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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