The Tring’s Missing Birds

A letter by Kirk Johnson, to the classic, artistic, traditional, and modern fly tying community. Not just this community, but the entire, worldwide community.

Dated March 29th, 2016


Dear members of the classic fly-tying community,

Over the past five years, I have been glad to get to know many of you, from meetings at the Somerset show to interviews over the phone, Skype, email, and in person, throughout the world. By a rough estimate, I think I have well over a thousand pages of transcripts from interviews about the burglary of 299 bird skins from the British Museum of Natural History in Tring, in 2009. For those who aren’t aware, these interviews were conducted as research for a book I’m writing about what happened at the Tring. I have also spent years reading Kelson, Pryce-Tannatt, the history of the hobby, and the feather trade.

I am well aware that this is a sensitive subject, and that there is a chance that this post is deleted before most of you have a chance to reply or weigh in. I truly hope that Bud will give this post a chance to see the light of day by recognizing my intent here, which is not to stir up rumors and drama, but to sincerely raise a number of questions that remain after a years-long investigation into this story. At the bottom of this post, I’ve included my email, along with a link to a contact page on my site, which will give you the opportunity to share information anonymously, if you prefer.

I will say up front that I know and understand how Edwin’s theft poses a risk to the reputation of your community. I know many of you were appalled by what happened, and that some of you immediately returned what you’d purchased from him to the Tring, at great personal cost, in some instances. I understand that it’s a wide community with members of every stripe, and that it doesn’t deserve to be defined solely by what one member did. I get that you would prefer to see that chapter of your history closed. I understand that many of you closely follow CITES regulations, or are embracing the use of subs. I know about things like the Kori Bustard initiative.

With that said, though, I am writing because there are still a number of unresolved facets of the story, and some of them seem to implicate the broader community. I’m not in the business of generalizations, though, so I’m writing to give any/all of you an opportunity to tell me where I’m wrong, or to help me figure out the answers to some of these lingering questions.

So let me dive into it:

1. Edwin stole 299 bird skins. Of those, 102 were recovered with their labels from his apartment. 72 intact specimens were recovered without labels, bringing us to 174 out of 299.

2. After his arrest, an additional 19 specimens (without labels) were returned by post to the museum, bringing us to 193 skins. A large quantity of feathers and patches in ziploc bags were also recovered, but my focus here is on the skins. For two species, Cotinga ridgwayi and Cotinga maynana, the museum recovered more specimens back than were stolen (16 were stolen, 20 were returned), which means that:

3. There are 110 skins outstanding. To put a finer point on it, this is what’s still missing (the quantity of missing skins follows each species):
Haematoderus militaris (1) (Crimson Fruitcrow)
Pyroderus scutatus (29) (Red-Ruffed Fruitcrow / Indian Crow)
Cotinga amabilis (4) (Lovely Cotinga)
Cotinga cotinga (21) (Purple-Breasted Cotinga)
Cotinga maculata (1) (Banded Cotinga)
Cotinga cayana (4) (Spangled Cotinga)
Pharomachrus mocinno (10) (Resplendent Quetzal)
Pharomachrus antisianus (10) (Crested Quetzal)
Pharomachrus auriceps (4) (Golden-Headed Quetzal)
Sericulus aureus (5) (Flame Bowerbird)
Ptiloris magnificus (1) (Magnificent Riflebird)
Lophorina superba (2) (Superb Bird-of-Paradise)
Cicinnurus regius (18) (King Bird-of-Paradise)

These numbers are from the Tring’s audit and from the assessment of what was recovered at the time of the arrest. Edwin admitted to the theft (and to these numbers, which were put to him during the interrogation), so let’s put to rest the theory that the Tring didn’t know how many birds were stolen, or that the 299 number is wrong.

I recognize that many of you might have taken up fly-tying after all of this happened, so I’m writing with a very blunt question to those of you who were tying back then:

Where are the missing skins?

4. Edwin was ordered by the court to pay back approximately £125,000, which is an estimate of the profit he made from his sales. As often as I’ve seen Edwin’s actions written off as being of the lone ‘bad apple’ sort, a whole lot of fly tiers bought materials from him to get to those kinds of numbers. For the most part, those skins and feathers were not returned to the museum. You can do the math on how valuable 29 IC skins are, or 18 King BOPs.

5. Of course, many might have been told a falsehood about the origin of the feathers and skins (“found in antique shop,” etc.), and genuinely not known that they were part of a major crime. But it seems to me that you are uniquely positioned to help the Museum recover what was stolen. I want to be clear: as much as I would personally like to know and understand who might be in possession of any of the missing skins, it is much more important that they be returned. I have included the Museum’s address below for anyone who is so inclined. (The Museum will also accept returns anonymously.)

6. You may have personal opinions about whether or not the Museum deserves to have so many skins, or whether or not the feathers are more rightly appreciated on a hook and not in a research cabinet, but these birds were stolen, and do not belong to the community. I don’t mean to lecture, and imagine that some of you might be annoyed by this point, but I am challenging you to help remove this cloud that hangs over your hobby. Simply deleting any reference to what happened at the Tring doesn’t seem like the best way of confronting or coming to terms with it.

7. And so I’m asking any of you to share what thoughts or facts you know about where the skins went, even if it’s only one of them. Even if it’s a pile of feathers, by this point. If you have emails or photos you’d like to forward, I am fully willing to grant anonymity to the sender (meaning that I will not reveal your name under any circumstance). I have made this arrangement with many tiers in the community already.

I can’t state this clearly enough: I am not on a witch hunt. I am not interested in unsubstantiated rumors. If you think you might have some of them, I’m more than happy to guide you through the process of returning them, even if you would prefer to do so anonymously.

8. Finally, I’m also looking to confirm the identity of the individual who acted honorably in July 2010 by tipping off the authorities about the online sales of these feathers (without this tip, an arrest would never have happened).

Even if you don’t know where the skins are, but have opinions about what I’ve written or what the Tring means to you or to the hobby, I’m also happy to hear from you.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to have this discussion with you all, and hope that this post isn’t removed to prevent that from happening.

Most sincerely,

Kirk Johnson

Address for returning any skins or feathers:

The Walter Rothschild Building
Akeman Street
HP23 6AP
United Kingdom

It would be helpful if a note with the words “2009 INCIDENT” was included with any mailings.

My email address for any thoughts or reactions:

Contact form for anonymous notes (feel free to put a fake name + email address in):