The Falcon Thief: A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird
By Joshua Hammer. Simon & Schuster, 2020, 324 pp. (I read the Kindle edition.)
People have been raiding birds' nests for centuries: for food, for breeding, for scientific inquiry, for mischief, for profit, and—strangely—for the mysterious allure of the eggs themselves. "I think that if required on pain of death to name instantly the most perfect thing in the universe," said the minister and abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who is quoted in Joshua Hammer's The Falcon Thief, "I should risk my fate on a bird's egg."
Profit would certainly seem to be high on the list of motives for Jeffrey Lendrum, who is the focus of the book, a man who, among various egg thieving acts, steals the eggs of falcons—legally protected birds—to sell for handsome sums in Arab lands where rich clients use them for racing and believe that wild birds are superior to those bred in captivity.
But as Hammer chronicles Lendrum's nest-robbing escapades, starting with his early youth in Rhodesia stealing eggs for his father's collection, he reveals how varied the thief's motives and pleasures are. There is the challenge of reaching the high aeries: Lendrum gets to exercise his remarkable athletic skills. There is the joy of coming so near to rare, powerful birds, like the Gyrfalcon, "a killing machine without equal." There is the thrill of illegality and of finding clever ways to elude capture—as when preparing for a plane trip, Lendrum wraps the eggs in socks and straps them to his chest for warmth. (Not clever enough, as it happens—he gets caught.)
Lendrum provides some historical context for falconry, and raises interesting points. He observes, for example, that egg collecting was once a respected pursuit, reminding us of the destruction that went into the creation of our finest natural history museums. But most of the book is devoted to a profile of Lendrum and, to a lesser extent, of Andy McWilliam, a retired police officer who joins the National Wildlife Crime Unit as a field investigator, becomes Britain's "most prominent wildlife cop," and offers his perspective on Lendrum and on this type of thief, whom he tries to understand.
I wish I could be as enthusiastic about The Falcon Thief as many other reviewers and readers have been: in view of our declining bird populations, its subject is important. But I came to find the narrative increasingly padded with decreasingly interesting details of Lendrum's exploits, and I found the journalese annoying, especially the introductory character descriptions with their notably untelling details. ("An intense, energetic, and deeply knowledgeable figure with an aquiline nose, arched brows, and a trim mustache…"). Still, the book opens up an area we need to be aware of, and Hammer creates sympathy for the devastated birds, who dart around frantically as their eggs are being stolen and return, forlorn, to their empty nests.