Tuesday, July 7, 2020
Kirk Wallace Johnson to Offer Behind-the-Scenes Look at ‘The Feather Thief’
Wednesday, September 11, 2019


Fly-tying enthusiasts will get a glimpse into the world of rare bird trafficking and its links to the world of fly-tying enthusiasts when Kirk Wallace Johnson speaks in Ketchum as part of the Sun valley Center for the Arts’ 2019-20 lecture series.

Kirk Wallace Johnson will speak at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 12 at the Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood. He is the author of “The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession and the Natural History Heist of the Century.”

“The Feather Thief” is Johnson’s investigation into the theft of hundreds of rare bird skins from the British Natural History Museum in 2009, said Katelyn Foley, director of education and humanities at The Center.

The heist was performed by a 20-year-old American flautist who scaled the wall of the museum and crawled through a window after performing at a concert at London’s Royal Academy of Music. There he grabbed 299 bird skins, some of which had been collected 150 years earlier by a contemporary of Darwin’s who’d risked everything to gather them.

The birds’ gorgeous feathers—many of which are now nearly impossible to obtain-- were worth amounts of money to those obsessed with the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying and its 150-year-old recipes.

Some of those recipes call for $2,000 worth of feathers, Johnson notes. And some of the skins, such as the King Bird of Paradise, can no longer be found. Not only are they beautiful but scientists still use them today for research to demonstrate such things as rising mercury levels in the ocean.

Johnson learned about the heist from a fly-fishing guide while standing waist high in the Red River of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains north of Taos, N.M. And he could hardly wait to get off the river to start a years-long investigation to find out the rest of the story.

It was, he says, a welcome diversion from researching the humanitarian crisis of the Iraqis who had become forgotten refugees after serving alongside U.S. troops and diplomats during the Iraq War.

Some of the skins were eventually returned to the museum. And locks have been put on cabinets housing such feathers in many natural history museums around the world.

And what became of Rist? Johnson says he’s performing as a concert flautist in Germany, a base from which he posts heavy metal flute renditions for the theme to “Game of Thrones” and other songs to YouTube.

The Los Angeles-based Johnson’s Iraqi investigation, meanwhile, resulted in “To Be a Friend is Fatal: The Fight to Save the Iraqis America Left Behind.” As a result of his research for that book, he founded The List Project, a nonprofit that helps Iraqi refugees who worked for U.S.-affiliated organizations during the war in Iraq resettle in the United States.

Tickets for Johnson’s lecture are $20 for Center members and $30 for nonmembers, available at www.sunvalleycenter.org or 208-726-9491.



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