The Feather Thief—a must-read!

By Christy Esmahan, Travis Audubon Board Member

The Travis Audubon Ruffled Feathers Book Club, which meets bimonthly, recently discussed a book that we all found so compelling that we decided to spread the word and try to get many more people to read it. Not just birders, nor, indeed, just naturalists, but everyone. It’s that good and that important.

The Feather Thief (published in 2018) by Kirk Wallace Johnson is the true story of a young man, Edwin Rist, who committed a crime against humanity by stealing from a museum of natural history. That may not sound too terrible, but with Johnson’s journalistic expertise and his obsession for discovering the truth about what really happened, the reader is led through a thoughtful and thorough investigation, learning the background story that began with the work of scientists hundreds of years ago.

I first came across a review of The Feather Thief on Oprah’s list of Best New Books of Spring last year. As I came to birding late in life, but am a voracious reader and learner, I ordered it, though I didn’t really expect much. But wow, those first several chapters of the book, as Johnson delves into the history of bird collecting over the centuries, and how birds fared in the last three decades of the 1800s before a bunch of people came to their senses and demanded changes, are beyond fascinating: they actually speak to us now, a hundred and twenty years later, as we again face tremendous challenges with, according to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Report, one million species at risk of extinction globally.

Understanding the past also sheds light on the importance of the crime that Rist committed, and which involves a lot of other people who are conspirators, participating in the hobby of fly tying which, when tyers become obsessed with obtaining the rare feathers needed at any cost, can lead to continuing crimes against wildlife and/or humanity. This is a subject that needs light and needs to be better understood by all of us in order to stem the loss of the precious birds left on our planet. All of us in the Ruffled Feathers Book Club, therefore, encourage you to read the book (also available in the public library), and then share it widely, recommending it to friends and family everywhere.

As Margaret Mead said, “Never Doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

If you’d like to join us at future Ruffled Feather Book Club discussions, check the Travis Audubon calendar. Our next meeting will be September 15th, 2019.

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