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Publisher's Summary

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, 20-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 staggering amounts of money to the men who shared Edwin's obsession: the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying. Once inside the museum, the champion fly-tier grabbed hundreds of bird skins - some collected 150 years earlier by a contemporary of Darwin's, Alfred Russel Wallace, who'd risked everything to gather them - and escaped into the darkness.

Two years later, Kirk Wallace Johnson was waist high in a river in northern New Mexico when his fly-fishing guide told him about the heist. He was soon consumed by the strange case of the feather thief. What would possess a person to steal dead birds? Had Edwin paid the price for his crime? What became of the missing skins? In his search for answers, Johnson was catapulted into a years-long, worldwide investigation. The gripping story of a bizarre and shocking crime, and one man's relentless pursuit of justice, The Feather Thief is also a fascinating exploration of obsession, and man's destructive instinct to harvest the beauty of nature.

©2018 Kirk Wallace Johnson (P)2018 Penguin Audio

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Average Customer Ratings

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Sylvia
  • Valdosta, GA
  • 04-28-18

Unusual and true natural history mystery!

This is a fascinating book that not only explains about the particular theft of feathers and bird skins, but also about the function of museums and other institutions keeping actual collections of these and why people would want to steal these things. As I said, not just birds but also things like elephant tusks and turtles and all types of animals. The reason I gave the story only four stars is because the detailed theft story began but then diverged off into speaking about all these other topics marginally related to the actual feather theft. Once it got back to the actual feather theft, I was a little confused about who was who and the wheres and whens and so on. But I eventually got back on to the gist of things. Although I have a degree in biology and have both used and contributed to various collections myself, of reptiles/amphibians, not birds, I did not know a good number of things covered by this story. If you have an interest in biology or natural history or ecology or conservation or museums or even just history, I think you would enjoy this audiobook because it is rather unique and presents facts and stories that you may never have heard and relates them together in a way you may not have been aware that they relate. So I have spoken this into my phone rather than typed it and I hope that it makes sense to you. I enjoyed this audiobook. P. S. If you are interested in flyfishing or fly tying, you would probably really, really get into this book!!!

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

A good author can write about anything.

Who would have thought there would be drama in fly tying! Highly recommend, if a bit obscure.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Surprisingly Riveting

I heard about this book on an NPR interview. Surprisingly riveting. the author takes subject matter that is relatively obscure and turns it in to truly interesting story.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Weird, fascinating, & engrossing story!

I've fished, tried to cast with my son's fly-fishing rod, and admired some of the flies that he has tied, but I never imagined I could be so captivated by the story of a young man so obsessed with Victorian salmon-fly tying that he would resort to stealing hundreds of rare and exotic bird feathers and skins from the Tring Natural History Museum.

Truth really is stranger than fiction in The Feather Thief, and Kirk Johnson has written this weirdly fascinating story so well that I couldn't help but become immersed in it. He presents his research so the reader can understand the background and development of salmon-fly tying as an elite and expensive hobby in the 19th century. He also writes about Darwin's rival Alfred Russel Wallace and his quest to gather rare birds for scientific study and 19th century women demanding exotic birds and feather for their hats. On the surface, The Feather Thief is about exactly what its title states, but it's also about protecting endangered species and those who exploit those species for pleasure and money.

The author says that after he heard about the feather thief from a fly-fishing guide in New Mexico, “I became obsessed with the crime within moments. The more I found out, the greater the mystery grew, and my own compulsion to solve it.” I felt the same way about this engrossing book.

6 of 8 people found this review helpful

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  • Donna
  • Visalia, CA, United States
  • 08-20-18

Better than fiction- or is it fiction

As someone who has followed salmon fly tying for some years, this story took me quite by surprise. The author laid out the history of Alfred Wallace and Darwin in the pursuit of discovery, the millinery industry and sports and gillies who developed the flies for salmon fishing very well. He told the story of the boys who became protege fly tiers and the one who took his passion to criminal heights. Just when I thought the story was over, the author found another mystery. He told the story very well. The book was very well read in the Audible format and will particularly be of interest to those interested in the discovery of exotic birds or history of fly tying. The reader is encouraged to take a little time to find pictures of the birds noted to become more connected with our planet and what humans sometimes do to drive extinction.

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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

I often thought, No way! Can this be true?!

The author does a great job of taking you on a tour of a very, very strange world. It's all well written and intriguing--also incredible. No way! I'd think, That couldn't have really happened! In addition to the central story, about a young feather thief, the author probes into other areas of human behavior like the 19th century hat craze and its insatiable hunger for feathers, and the varying moral perspectives concerning the crime at the heart of the story. It was interesting and entertaining, and enlightening on certain human moral dimensions, dealt with honestly. Glad I read it. Narration was very good.

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    5 out of 5 stars
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Fascinating & Multilevel Story

I was expecting this story to be purely about the heist – what lead to it, how it was done, and what happened after – but it was so much more. The book provides fascinating details on the original collection of the feathers, the cultural shifts in the feather trade, and Victorian fly tying as an art. None of these subjects held any previous interest for me – I was just looking for a good true crime story – but the way in which the topics are discussed and entwined with the heist itself is beautifully done and truly fascinating.

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    2 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars

bird details details details

the detailed descriptions of feathers, birds, fly ties was excessive. if i had been reading and not listening to the book i may have never finished. the meat of the heist was in the beginning and the meat of the investigation at the end. in between was a loooot of detail.

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    5 out of 5 stars
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Fascinating, fun, educational read

Wallace writes nonfiction with a fiction writer's prose. Extremely engaging and entertaining throughout the great story.

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Ornithologist and pissed

As the narrator was reading the account of the heist, I found myself yelling in frustration at my phone. It’s a beautifully told account of what happened and the performance is great. It’ll leave you frustrated and hungry for justice. A must read if you love birds and wildlife conservation.