> Skip to content
About the book
  • Published: 4 June 2019
  • ISBN: 9780099510666
  • Imprint: Windmill Books
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 320
  • RRP: $19.99

The Feather Thief

Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century

A page-turning story of a bizarre and shocking crime, and one man’s relentless quest for justice.

'A tale of obsession ... vivid and arresting' The Times

One summer evening in 2009, twenty-year-old musical prodigy Edwin Rist broke into the Natural History Museum at Tring, home to one of the largest ornithological collections in the world. Once inside, Rist grabbed as many rare bird specimens as he was able to carry before escaping into the darkness.

Kirk Wallace Johnson was waist-deep in a river in New Mexico when his fly-fishing guide first told him about the heist. But what would possess a person to steal dead birds? And had Rist paid for his crime? In search of answers, Johnson embarked upon a worldwide investigation, leading him into the fiercely secretive underground community obsessed with the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying.

Was Edwin Rist a genius or narcissist? Mastermind or pawn?

  • Pub date: 4 June 2019
  • ISBN: 9780099510666
  • Imprint: Windmill Books
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 320
  • RRP: $19.99

About the Author

Kirk Wallace Johnson

Kirk Wallace Johnson served in Iraq with the US Agency for International Development in Baghdad and Fallujah as the Agency’s first co-ordinator for reconstruction in the war-torn city. He went on to found The List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies. His work on behalf of Iraqi refugees was profiled by This American Life, 60 Minutes, the Today Show, the subject of a feature-length documentary, The List, and a memoir, To Be a Friend is Fatal.

A Senior Fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy, and the recipient of fellowships from the American Academy in Berlin, Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and the Wurlitzer Foundation, his writing has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times and the Washington Post. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, son and daughter.

Praise for The Feather Thief

“The Feather Thief truly is a tale of obsession ... A wonderfully assured writer, [Johnson] takes us on a curious journey into the past ... Vivid and arresting”

The Times

“A fascinating investigation of a seriously ridiculous crime”

New Scientist

“The questions [The Feather Thief] raises are more pertinent than ever”

Daily Mail

“The book is The Orchid Thief for the fly-fishing and birding set: worth its weight in exotic bird feathers, which you’ll learn are very expensive”

The Paris Review

“Weird and wonderful”

The Tablet

“The Feather Thief is a riveting read. It also stands, I believe, as a reminder of how an obsession with the ornaments of nature — be they feathers, bird eggs or ivory — can wreak havoc on our scientific heritage”


“Within pages I was hooked. This is a weird and wonderful book… Johnson is a master of pacing and suspense… it’s a tribute to Johnson’s storytelling gifts that when I turned the last page I felt bereft”


“A fascinating book… the kind of intelligent reported account that alerts us to a threat and that, one hopes, will never itself be endangered”

Wall Street Journal

“Johnson’s narrative entertainingly recounts not just Rist’s strange story but that of the pioneering Victorian ornithologists too”

New Statesman

“Unusual and engrossing page-turner… A wide-ranging, captivating work”

Literary Review

“The Feather Thief is not only a thrilling account of the crime and its aftermath but also a potted history of our relationship with the natural world”

Daily Mail

“The Feather Thief is a compelling blend of mystery, quirky salmon flytiers, and dogged natural-history enthusiasts, and it highlights the obsessive lengths that people will go to destroy—and protect—some of the world’s most valuable treasures”


“A stirring examination of the devastating effects of human greed on endangered birds, a powerful argument for protecting our environment—and, above all, a captivating crime story”

Peter Wohlleben, author of The Hidden Life of Trees

“The kind of beguiling spiral of a non-fiction work which I adore”

Stuart Kelly, Scotland on Sunday

“A captivating account”

Express Magazine

“A true-crime tale that weaves seemingly unrelated threads into a spellbinding narrative tapestry”

Mark Adams, author of Turn Right at Machu Picchu

“A real page-turner, while at the same time meditative, thoughtful and stylish, The Feather Thief takes us on a fascinating journey inside a bizarre and secretive underworld unlike any other.”

Henry Hemming, author of M: Maxwell Knight, MI5's Greatest Spymaster

“A bizarre and yet utterly gripping tale”

Reader's Digest

“A captivating tale of an unlikely thief and his even more unlikely crime, and a meditation on obsession, greed, and the sheer fascination in something as seemingly simple as a feather”

Paul Collins, author of The Murder of the Century

“This is the type of book I absolutely love – one that takes a seemingly obscure topic and shines a brilliant and bizarre and endlessly fascinating light upon it. Kirk Wallace Johnson’s portrayal of the crazy world of feather fanatics makes this an unforgettable read”

Michael Finkel, author of The Stranger in the Woods

“This gem of a book, is marvelous, moving, and transcendent. I can’t stop thinking about it”

Dean King, author of Skeletons on the Zahara

“Fascinating… An engagingly written story … you’ll be reading it when you should be doing other things”

i paper

“This extraordinary book exposes an international underground that traffics in rare and precious natural resources, yet was previously unknown to all but a few. A page-turning read you won’t soon forget, The Feather Thief tells us as much about our cultural priorities as it does about the crimes themselves. There’s never been anything like it”

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, author of The Hidden Life of Dogs

“Johnson (To Be a Friend Is Fatal) makes his true-crime debut with this enthralling account of a truly bizarre crime…. Johnson goes deep into the exotic bird and feather trade and concludes that though obsession and greed know no bounds, they certainly make for a fascinating tale. The result is a page-turner that will likely appeal to science, history, and true crime readers”

Publishers Weekly

“A riveting detective story”

The Bookseller

“This true story about the theft of a bunch of bird skins is one of the most peculiar and memorable true-crime books ever”

CS Monitor

“The very best sort of nonfiction: wide-ranging, intelligent and gripping”

Bookish Beck Blog

“As well as recounting a crime this text provokes its readers to think about human obsession and greed about the fate of avian species which, by an accident of plumage, have vanished from the earth. I warmly recommend this unusual, rich book.”

Trout & Salmon Magazine

“A gripping natural-history detective story. Was Rist a cunning con-artist who more or less got away with the perfect, albeit clumsy crime? Or was he hopelessly addicted to feathers, to his hobby, and to his status as a young fly-tying protégé without the economic means to realise his dreams and potential?”

Caught by the River

“This well written account of the known facts is well worth a read”

birdwatch Magazine

“It was hard to put the book down… Read it yourselves, enjoy it and learn from it!”

British Birds

Related titles