An Interview with Kirk Wallace Johnson: Author of The Feather Thief

2 months ago Experiences, Indonesia

One of the highlights of our Aqua Blu expedition to Raja Ampat is the early morning excursion we take to Mayabilit Bay in order to watch the rare Birds of Paradise in their natural habitat. We catch up with author Kirk Wallace Johnson, whose debut novel encompasses a gripping story of a bizarre and shocking true crime involving the theft of rare bird specimens gathered by explorer and evolution theorist Alfred Russel Wallace, and one man’s relentless pursuit of justice.

 

right: © Marie-Josée Cantin Johnson

 

1. It’s incredible to think that the events of this story are something that happened in real life – a 20-year-old flautist stole one million dollars’ worth of rare dead birds! Besides the peculiarity of this crime, what personally compelled you to embark on such a long-lasting investigation?

Part of the answer is embedded in your question: this was such a peculiar crime that it seemed impossible that it was true. A young American flautist stealing a million dollars’ worth of exotic birds from the British Museum to sell to the cultish community of Victorian salmon fly-tiers? But the more that I tunneled into the story, though, the stranger it got; the more I learned about the seriousness of the heist, the more I became determined to get to the bottom of what truly happened. On a personal level, I was also very much in need of an escape, having spent much of the previous decade battling my own government on behalf of tens of thousands of Iraqis that had become refugees as a result of working as interpreters for the U.S. during the war.

 

The Feather Thief became something of a personal escape for me – something wildly different from what I was wrestling with in my day-to-day. But what started out as a little hobby – learning what I could about this community of Victorian salmon-fly tiers and their manic need for rare feathers – grew into a years-long obsession for me.

 

The Jock Scott fly, tied by Spencer Seim, the fly-fishing guide in northern New Mexico that first told the author about the Tring Heist. Instead of using costly feathers from exotic species, Seim uses substitute feathers, made from dyeing plumes from ordinary game birds like Turkeys and Pheasants. © Spencer Seim, Ziafly.com

 

2. Many of our guests are passionate birdwatchers and are drawn to traveling with us to the Peruvian Amazon and East Indonesia because of their diversity in bird species. Did you have any interest in ornithology or birdwatching prior to writing the book or have you now been converted into an avid birder?

I’ve always had an intense love for the natural world: a huge reason why fly-fishing is such a passion for me is because of where it takes me, to places where there are no cellphone signals, where the difference between hooking a trout and getting skunked often comes down to how attentive you are (or aren’t) to the life cycles of the natural world playing out around you. But as much as I appreciated birds, they were mostly “birds” to me before writing this book: I was not a birder, had very little knowledge of particular species, and frankly didn’t understand birders.

 

But now, I do. Not long after the book came out, I went to Thailand on my first proper birding expedition, with a couple of fellow authors that are avid birders. In my first twenty minutes birding, I saw a Spoon-billed Sandpiper, which I guess spoils me for good. I never imagined sitting for hours in a sweltering bird blind waiting for a Pitta to wander by could be so suspenseful. I’m not a twitcher, and couldn’t tell you what my life list number is, but I’ll always be paying attention to what’s fluttering around me. I’ve also become friends with ornithologists throughout the world, and have become an unofficial defender of the need to maintain and protect collections of specimens for future research.

 

Spoon-billed sandpiper

Spoon-billed sandpiper

 

 

3. What were your main sources of research for the background history of these exotic birds, their collection, and the studies conducted on these specimens?

This was an intensive investigation, not just into what happened to the stolen birds, but how they ended up in the British Natural History Museum in the first place. Once the Museum finally admitted that several of the specimens had been gathered by Alfred Russel Wallace, I went on a voracious Wallace bender, reading every biography I could find, his own works, and then, his field notebooks from his time in the Malay Archipelago.

 

I was helped along the way by ornithologists like Richard Prum at Yale and John McCormack at Occidental, both of whom brought me into their collections and kept me abreast of how specimens were being used in new research. The folks at the Moore Lab of Zoology at Occidental even taught me how to skin and prepare a bird for their collection, which was an invaluable hands-on way of learning just how much work goes into creating this archive of the natural world.

 

The Tring Museum’s press release announcing the theft included this photo of the species of birds the thief—or thieves—had targeted the most: Indian Crow, Resplendent Quetzal, Blue Chatterer, and Birds of Paradise, several of which had been collected by Alfred Russel Wallace.  © Natural History Museum, London

 

 

4. Why is it so important for these rare bird skins to be preserved after more than 150 years of their collection? What can they help scientists understand?

The answer to that question was always one of the most magical aspects of this whole story: these specimens hold answers to questions that scientists haven’t even thought of, yet. Some of these birds have been preserved since before the word ‘scientist’ was even coined. Alfred Russel Wallace presciently understood the importance of preserving these collections, describing each specimen as the individual letters that make up the words of the deep history of the planet: if we let them disappear (or get stolen by greedy individuals), we’re losing that snapshot of the planet and all of the information each bird holds.

 

Close-up of Alfred Russel Wallace’s tags tied to the feet of a Yellow-Crowned Barbet. © Bird Collection, The Field Museum of Natural History

 

Scientists can pluck a single feather from a specimen and reconstruct the food web at that moment in time. Having specimens of the same species, gathered from the same location, from 1820, 1890, and 1950 allows researchers to better understand how our world is changing. A common example: we understand the impact of DDT pesticides (and curbed their use) by comparing the thickness of eggshells in collections gathered before and after the chemical was introduced into the environment. Researchers at the University of Chicago were able to study the amount of soot trapped in feathers of bird specimens to show how societal changes (like when Chicagoans stopped burning coal to heat their buildings) and policy shifts (like the Clean Air Act in America) affect the natural world.

 

That is why I spent so many years chasing this story. In stealing hundreds of birds from the British Natural History Museum – specimens that have been examined by generations of scientists, each time yielding new insights about our changing planet – Edwin Rist was stealing from our ability to learn. A curator at the museum described this as a “catastrophic theft from humanity,” which is what motivated me to try to track the missing birds down. You can’t go back and get another Bird of Paradise from 1850.

 

Crazily enough, I’ve now uncovered five separate natural history museum heists carried out for fly-tying. Three in Europe and two in the U.S., all carried out over the past couple of decades. As wild as Edwin’s actions were, they were not that unusual – and this is going to keep happening as long as the demand for these birds continues to intensify.

 

5. While Alfred Russel Wallace was known among his peers for his own contemporary theory of evolution, it was Charles Darwin who received global recognition and accolades. What can you tell us about him as an explorer and the impact his discoveries had on science having delved deep into his life and work?

Wallace is famous for not being as famous as he should be! The longest chapter of the book is the first because it establishes just how extraordinary this man was, and why his story matters to a heist that happened 150 years later. A self-taught man from an undistinguished family that, through the power of his own intellect, perseverance, and love of the natural world, solved the riddle of all riddles: the origin of species. There’s not enough space to do justice to that story here, but Wallace was a man that should have died seething with resentment after being trodden over by the scientific elites of his day (who gave Darwin the ultimate credit), but he was gracious until the very end.

 

Alfred Russel Wallace and the title page of volume 1 of his book “The Malay Archipelago”. Left: Alfred Russel Wallace, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons / Right: London Stereoscopic and Photographic Company (active 1855-1922), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

 

6. We loved this book because it revolves around the collection of stolen bird skins and of course, Wallace’s birds of paradise specimens were among them. Have you had the chance to witness this enigmatic species in the wild?

Not yet, surprisingly! I finished the first draft of the book two days before our son was born, and the final draft about a week before our daughter was born, fifteen months later. As much as I wanted to see them while working on the book, I just didn’t have it in me to leave my wife to fend for herself with two babies while I was traipsing around looking for birds.

 

I’ve seen loads of them up close, but only in drawers in collections. I had the pleasure of handling a Bird of Paradise gathered by Alfred Russel Wallace while on the book tour, and have marveled at the wonderful photos and research of Tim Laman and Ed Scholes, but I long to see them in the wild.

 

Red Bird of Paradise

 

 

7. Do you have any favorite bird species from the stolen collection?

It’s hard to beat the Flame Bowerbird, with its matador-like mating dance, during which it dilates its pupils in a hypnotic fashion. But it feels unfair to pick just one: all of these species are stunning, which partly explains why there is such a demand for them. One of the quotes that opens the book is from a former Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, who described the endless human obsession with these birds: “Man is seldom content to witness beauty…he must possess it.”

 

8. What have been some of the most interesting reactions to the book you have received from readers (could be from those within the fly-tying community, birdwatchers, ornithology experts, or just regular readers)?

Well, the fly-tying community reacted with the hostility that I imagined, not just against me, but others within the community that are trying to push for change – to drop this silly addiction to exotic feathers. The fly-fishing guide that first mentioned the heist to me, a decade ago, has effectively been excommunicated for the sin of turning me onto the story.

 

I’ve been especially heartened by all the readers who have written to tell me of their newfound passion for birding, fly-fishing, or some of the historical dimensions of the book, like Alfred Russel Wallace. Plenty of readers have tried to pick up where I left off, in search of the missing skins. Another unexpected consequence of the book: most natural history museums and collections around the world have added increased security (locks, security cameras, additional scrutiny for access requests) around the species of birds targeted by Edwin and the fly-tiers.

 

9. Looking back, what has been the most rewarding experience of writing this book?

This is one of the hardest questions to answer, in part because this has been one of the most thrilling and unexpected adventures of my life. This story fell into my lap at a time when I was desperate to start putting the Iraq War behind me. I didn’t even have a book agent, and had never written a book before, but the story was just so astonishing to me that I kept chasing it until everything fell into place. Along the way, I became friends with David Attenborough, with Alfred Russel Wallace’s 92-year-old grandson, and a worldwide network of new friends that care about protecting the natural world.

 

Kirk Wallace Johnson with Alfred Russel Wallace’s grandson

 

10. What type of traveler are you? Take us through some of the favorite places you have visited and bucket-list destinations for the future.

I grew up in a family that put a huge premium on travel, in large part due to my tiny Dutch grandmother: she never went to college, but came to see travel as the best form of education…and went to something like 85 countries before she died. She made it a mission to take each of her grandchildren somewhere outside of the United States (no Disneyland trips!). She took my oldest brother, then 15, to Russia when it was still the Soviet Union: when he came back, he started studying Russian at a local community college in the evenings after his normal classes in high school, and went on to spend most of his twenties in Russia after getting a degree in Russian studies. My middle brother went to Ecuador with her and is fluent in Spanish and lived through South America. She took me to Egypt when I was 15: as soon as I got home, I started studying Arabic, skipped my high school graduation to study at the American University in Cairo, ultimately getting a degree in Middle Eastern Studies before spending most of my twenties in the region.

 

I’ve been lucky to travel quite a bit, but the trip that still stands out above all was a two-week expedition into the rainforests of Northern Bolivia (by way of Rurrenabaque) with my brother. After a week in the jungle, we were running low enough on food that we started fishing for our meals, using baitfish that we gathered by sprinkling sap from a nearby tree that stunned the baitfish to the surface. We built a raft out of balsa trunks, binding them together with water-soaked bark, and drifted for days down the Rio Beni as Macaws flew overhead and monkeys swam toward us. In the sweltering heat, we cut notches in 50-foot vines as thick as our arms, and drank the cool water that gushed out. We hid in trees over a wild boars’ den for hours, until we heard the thunder of thousands of hooves as they swarmed in from far off in the forest. Our feet were so besieged with sandflies that we no longer could wear boots, but it remains one of the most magical trips I’ve taken.

 

11. A little bird tells us there are exciting things on your horizon. Can you divulge what you’ve been busy with recently and do you still have time to go fishing?

I’m just finishing up my next book, which deals with a clash between Vietnamese refugees and the Ku Klux Klan along the Texas Gulf Coast in the early 1980s. After the fall of Saigon, many of the Vietnamese resettled in America ended up along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, as many of them were shrimpers and fishermen back home before fleeing. At first, the white fishermen sold them shabby boats at a huge mark-up, playing them for suckers, but the Vietnamese worked the hell out of the boats, fixing them up and out-fishing the whites. Before long, they were enough of an economic threat that the whites began begging the government to ban refugees. When that failed, they brought in the KKK to wage a campaign of violence and harassment to drive the Vietnamese from the coast. It’s an astonishing story that hasn’t fully been told, but I’ve spent the past couple of years getting most of those involved to speak with me – and, in many cases, to confess to crimes that have gone unsolved for nearly four decades. It’s a story that braids war, immigration, white supremacy, and environmental destruction in ways I never anticipated when starting out.

 

Both that book and The Feather Thief are being adapted: my next book will be a limited series, and the Feather Thief as a feature. I’m also in the midst of my first foray into screenwriting, for a series idea that I recently sold that deals with the world of pharmaceutical espionage. (The less I say, the better).

 

As for fishing, I never get to go out as much as I’d like – especially now that I live in Los Angeles (although I have gone fly-fishing for carp in the LA River, which is 90% treated wastewater). Shortly before the pandemic hit, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to fish the Big Wood River from Hemingway’s property in Ketchum, Idaho. It’s hard to describe the joy of landing 20+ trout and then taking a break on Hemingway’s deck.

 

 

Join us for unforgettable adventures aboard Aqua Blu, for a chance to spot the enigmatic Bird of Paradise during our Raja Ampat expeditions.