How an Obsession With Rare Bird Feathers Turned Criminal

In a bizarre heist, a young musician broke into the British Natural History Museum at Tring to steal exotic birds.

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A superb bird of paradise.

“This is a very unusual crime,” Detective Inspector Fraser Wylie of the Hertfordshire Constabulary, in southern England, said at the time.

It happened one night in November 2009, when Edwin Rist, a 20-year-old American, broke into the British Natural History Museum at Tring, one of the world’s greatest repositories of exotic birds. He stuffed a suitcase with nearly 300 of the rarest, most dazzling species—the magnificent riflebird, the resplendent quetzal, the superb bird of paradise, among others—and vanished.

Rist, a gifted flautist, was in London attending the Royal Academy of Music. He was also a champion salmon flytier. Avocation had become obsession, locking him in a kind of fly-tying arms race with other practitioners of the art. The more exotic and spectacular the feathers, the greater the kudos, and the more money to be made from selling them.

“Impossibly strange” was Kirk Johnson’s reaction when he heard about the crime while fly-fishing in northern New Mexico. “I found it so bizarre as to be captivating,” he says. “It struck me as impossible to hear about a museum heist of dead...

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