The Falcon Thief: A True Tale Of The Hunt For The Perfect Bird by Joshua Hammer — Review
A crime adventure based on the true story of a charming rogue who steals endangered birds and their eggs from the wild to sell on the global black market — and of the British wildlife crime detective determined to stop him
NOTE: This piece was a Forbes Editor’s pick.
With Easter almost here, many peoples’ thoughts are turning to the annual Easter egg hunt. But for some people, the hunt for eggs never stops, as you will learn in Joshua Hammer’s new book, The Falcon Thief: A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery, and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird (Simon & Schuster UK, 2020; Amazon US / Amazon UK). This is the true story of an incorrigible egg thief who has been caught five times on three continents with the chicks and eggs of endangered birds of prey, and the British wildlife crime detective who was determined to stop him.
Although Jeffrey Lendrum’s criminal activities began when he was just a boy, the author begins recounting his story in May 2010 at Britain’s Birmingham International Airport. A former security guard, working as a janitor at the Emirates First Class Lounge, initially became suspicious of a passenger who somehow managed to spend 20 minutes in the lounge bathroom without touching anything. But the janitor did discover a mysterious egg, dyed blood-red, in the trash can. Puzzled, and worried that this odd passenger might be smuggling illegal narcotics, the janitor notified airport security. Closer inspection revealed that this man had fourteen live eggs secured to his body in a special belt. It turned out that these eggs had been stolen from several peregrine falcon nests on remote cliffs in Wales.
Thus begins the cat-and-mouse story that follows the life of a globe-trotting smuggler who devoted at least two decades to stealing endangered raptor chicks and their eggs from the wild to sell to wealthy Middle-eastern men — and Detective Andy McWilliam of the United Kingdom’s National Wildlife Crime Unit, who’s determined to protect the world’s birds of prey.
Part travelogue, part adventure and part character study, the reader accompanies the author as he retraces Lendrum’s footsteps from the volcanoes of Patagonia to Zimbabwe’s Matobo National Park, from the frigid tundra near the Arctic Circle to luxurious aviaries in the deserts of Dubai. Along the way, we meet falcon breeders, scientists and conservationists as well as lawyers and detectives. The reader also learns some amazing facts about peregrine falcons in particular: for example, they dive faster than a skydiver falls, and Emirate sheiks will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for one live peregrine falcon egg.
There is an undercurrent of tragedy that runs through this meticulously researched expose. First, there’s the tragedy of why birds of prey are endangered in the first place. A massive population decline in raptors throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere was caused by the widespread and reckless use of the pesticide, DDT, which causes egg shells to thin to the point where an incubating bird crushes them. Then there are those who trap young wild raptors during their first migration to sell to falconers and falcon racers in the Middle East. These factors are compounded by poaching and habitat destruction and, in Britain, by the juvenile obsession with egg collecting. Also known as oology, egg collecting is popular amongst some disaffected British men who blindly pursue it without any regard for the damage it causes.
Then there’s Lendrum, a swashbuckling and arrogant white Irish national born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) who developed a deep understanding of and passion for wildlife as a child growing up in Africa. Early on, his father shared his passion for collecting bird eggs with the impressionable boy. As an adult, Lendrum continued to hone his skills, becoming a daring cliff climber and expert naturalist. Lendrum’s tragedy was how his passion for nature was perverted into an obsession for oology which then was bastardized into an unwavering delusion that he was somehow “saving” endangered birds of prey by stealing their eggs and selling them to the highest bidder.
This breathlessly-paced adventure is extensively researched, informative and beautifully written. The author does a remarkable job of interweaving classical research with contemporary interviews to provide a compelling portrait of the history of falconry in Europe and the Middle East, the peculiarly obsessive nature of oology and its destructiveness, of wildlife crime and its punishment (mostly in the UK), and of falcon breeding and conservation.
Combining adventure and true crime, this gripping narrative is a fascinating and infuriating story that reads more like a novel than nonfiction. The Falcon Thief will appeal to those who also were enthralled by The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson and The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, and to anyone who enjoys reading about birds, nature and travel.
NOTE: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest, unbiased review. Additionally, as an Amazon Associate, I earn micropayments from qualifying Amazon purchases.
Originally published at Forbes on 30 March 2020.