This American Life: 654: The Feather Heist
August 20, 2018 9:29 PM - Subscribe

A flute player breaks into a British museum and makes off with a million dollars worth of dead birds.
posted by ruben (4 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
This feels like an old school This American Life of the sort we haven't seen much in decades. I really enjoyed it.

I love the crazy obsession as much as I hate the idea of selling stolen museum items. On the other hand, I don't really know enough to understand how valuable bird skins actually are to research; is the collection genuinely useful as something other than a novelty related to the history of science?

If you proposed a very similar scenario using museum artifacts I know enough about to care about - say, shattering Moche pottery to make fishing lures - I'd be horrified. As someone who knows nothing about birds, I can't tell if this story is a lot more grim and serious than it seems at first glance.
posted by eotvos at 11:59 AM on August 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

This article was linked in the Blue discussion thread on the episode and explains a little more about the impact of a loss like this on science. Basically, we don' t KNOW what questions we'd have been able to answer using this collection, and now we won't ever know.
posted by Knicke at 8:00 AM on August 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm behind on TAL but I can comment on the usefulness of specimens like that. I work with several curators of specimen collections as part of my work, and yeah, there is active research being done in the museum daily. There are little things like checking the weight listed on the tag as mentioned in the article (and curators are working on improving their databases of this info but lots of it is still sitting on that little paper tag and nowhere else, and they're chronically, ridiculously underfunded). There are genetic, chemical, and morphological tests that are done to learn about evolution or the ecology of the region (that's the bit where I come in; sometimes I do CT scans of whole preserved specimens to learn about their anatomy). There's stuff like the longitudinal studies of eggshell thickness leading to banning DDT, which I started yelling about before I saw mention of it in the article (a friend of mine is confirming global warming trends by looking at historical fish specimens). There's the education and outreach aspect: I've seen extinct specimens and they made me cry, and I'm neither a biologist nor an especially emotional person, so I think seeing what we've lost can be a way of making conservation seem less theoretical. And of course there are things biologists haven't thought of yet. What a horrific loss to science.
posted by tchemgrrl at 11:24 AM on August 22, 2018 [6 favorites]

Now that I've listened to it, I may never stop being angry with rage. The attitude from that subset of the fly tying community was so frustrating.
posted by tchemgrrl at 11:01 AM on August 23, 2018

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