Friday, May 29, 2020
Kirk Wallace Johnson Talks Feather Fever-The Strange Case of a Bird Robbery
Kirk Wallace Johnson related that one collector asked him to return the birds he’d bought from Edwin Rist to the museum. When Johnson declined, the collector returned 19 birds by mail.
Tuesday, September 17, 2019


If it was hats that nearly led to the extinction of beavers, it was Marie Antoinette’s egret or head plume positioned on her high hairdo that led to a near-extermination of white herons and other birds.

France’s queen set off a fad in women’s fashion that led to the slaughter of egrets and other birds by plume hunters until feminists pressured the government to end it, resulting in the world’s first conservation movement.

So noted Kirk Wallace Johnson this past week as he discussed his book “The Feather Thief” for a full house at the Church of the Big Wood.

Johnson kicked off the Sun Valley Center for the Arts’ 2019-20 lecture series in fine fashion, offering an engaging lecture that included images of rare birds that elicited “ooohs” and “ahhhs,” a couple videos and even a taped interview of the man behind the heist.

Gregarious and open to the point of sharing how most of his book readings involve “Dr. Seuss” and his toddler, he seemed taken aback by the widespread interest of the audience, about three-quarters of whom had read his book. And he had several personal invites to go fly-fishing before he left town to head back to Los Angeles.

Johnson was waist-deep in the Red River of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains north of Taos, N.M., when his fly-fishing guide told him about the heist of 299 rare bird skins from the British Natural History Museum in 2009.

The novelty of the burglary set him off on years of investigation following the story of a 20-year-old American flautist, who scaled the wall of the museum and crawled through the window to steal the birds to earn money to buy a golden flute.

There is an underground society of fly-tiers obsessed with the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying who are willing to pay $2,000 for exotic feathers from the king bird of paradise, resplendent quetzal, Indian crow and other birds that can no longer be found, Johnson said.

They’ll never cast a line boasting the beautiful flies. But it somehow completes their lives to have them in their possession.

Problem is, scientists have used these birds over and over throughout the centuries to chart the increasing amount of mercury in the oceans, air pollution dating to the Industrial Revolution and the link between eggshell thinning and DDT.

Edwin Rist, the man who performed the heist, first became enamored with fly-tying as a 9-year-old when his father was researching an article for “Discover” magazine. He began winning fly-tying competitions and by 16 was a fly-tying teacher in Fly Fisherman magazine.

A gifted student at the Royal College of Music, he stuffed the bird carcasses he snatched into a suitcase after performing at a concert at London’s Royal Academy of Music.

Alfred Russel Wallace, the man who had collected the specimens, had conceived the theory of evolution through natural selection, publishing his paper on the subject with Charles Darwin’s writings. He risked his life on journeys to South America and the Malay Archipelago during the mid-1800s to collect his specimens in order to establish a “valuable record of the past.”

He spent four years collecting specimens along the Amazon’s Rio Negro for instance, only to lose them when the ship he was taking back to Britain caught fire. Wallace narrowly escaped with his life, a few sketches and his watch.

Rist had cased Wallace’s collection earlier, posing as a photographer working with an ornithologist. It was days before the British Royal Museum realized it had been robbed, even though Rist smashed a window with a brick, Johnson said.

Embarrassed museum officials buried their heads, even though it should have been easy enough to figure out whodunit since only about 300 people visit that particular display over the course of a year. By the time they got around to seriously investigating the theft, Rist had left the country, his visa having expired.

It was 15 months before the police knocked on his door, tipped off by a fly-tying police officer who came across the lead at a fly-tying convention. By then, Rist had plucked the most colorful feathers from each skin and cut parts of each bird into small pieces for online sales.

He cut the tags off the specimens, rendering them useless without their identifying information. And he chucked many in a cardboard box, Johnson said. By then, he had made $30,000.

Although he was fined $15,000, Rist never spent a night behind bars, even though the judge who oversaw the case called the heist “a natural history disaster of world proportions.”  He still performs as a concert flautist in Germany. And he posts heavy metal flute renditions to YouTube under a different name.

In an eight-hour interview Johnson did with him in Dusseldorf, Germany, Rist protested that he was not a thief. A thief is someone who steals someone’s personal effects, he said, in a taped interview Johnson played that left audience members shaking their heads.

Unfortunately, Johnson said, this isn’t an isolated case. He knows of at least six other museum heists. A sustainable fly-tying society is trying to rewrite the 150-year recipes that called for the dazzling feathers of endangered birds. But many are still being told that the only way to be authentic is by using these rare feathers.

“There’s no reason a salmon would be attracted to a bird of paradise feather,” he said. “It’s possible these fly-tiers are trying to ascribe to a past way of life.”

Johnson said his experience has made him more aware of the fragility of polluted rivers and endangered species.

“It’s clear that we have to make a greater effort to take care of our rivers, our species,” he added.


Eye on Sun Valley's Lori McNee sat down with Kirk Wallace Johnson while he was in Sun Valley. Look for the interview on an upcoming edition of Eye on Sun Valley.



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