The Falcon Thief
- By Joshua Hammer
- Simon & Schuster
- 336 pp.
- Reviewed by Bob Duffy
- March 7, 2021
A wild tale of crime and punishment amid the world of raptors and rapscallions.
The real-life cops-and-robbers yarn The Falcon Thief centers on a marauder who combs the wild places of our world to raid the nests of eagles, falcons, or other birds of prey. It’s a compelling and remarkable tale, vibrant and authentic, rendered more resonant by author Joshua Hammer’s impressive research.
The book follows its antihero, Jeffrey Lendrum, from his adolescent scrambles into the gnarled treetops of post-colonial Africa to his mid-career depredations, sometimes tethered to a helicopter, on cliff faces in northern Canada, Wales, and Patagonia.
Lendrum’s objective is to nab the eggs and hatchlings of raptors, which can fetch handsome rewards from falcon fanciers worldwide. Another of Lendrum’s illegal outlets: the puzzlingly persistent collectors of wild-birds’ eggs, an eccentric few who have inherited (among other things) a penchant for kooky late-Victorian diversions.
But Lendrum’s most lucrative buyers are the mini-monarchs of the Persian Gulf, where the centuries-old tradition of Bedouin falconry is undergoing a rebirth among oil-rich oligarchs willing to pay $100,000 or more for a wild-caught uber-bird.
According to our author, these jaw-dropping prices stem from the burgeoning slate of high-purse, high-prestige raptor races in the region. Wild-captured specimens can race in these competitions, but their real appeal seems to be their genetic potential.
Legal breeding programs, using captive-bred populations — the equivalent of racehorse stables — thrive in the region. And wild-caught birds, thought to be consistently faster and stronger, are much sought after by unscrupulous breeders with an eye on enriching the bloodlines of racing stock.
Despite their endangered status, two species — peregrine falcons and gyrfalcons — both blindingly fast fliers, rate near the top of nest-raider Lendrum’s target list. Their wild populations are just now recovering from the worldwide devastation inflicted by DDT and other popular pesticides of the 1950s and 1960s. These noxious agents worked their way up the food chain, ultimately weakening the shell integrity of raptor eggs, causing them to collapse, killing the chicks inside.
As author Hammer reports, the situation was dire by the early 1970s, when only 250 breeding pairs of peregrines were left in Great Britain. It was worse in the U.S., where, excluding Alaska, only two or three dozen wild pairs remained.
Today, thanks to activists worldwide who have mobilized to get DDT banned, wild populations are making an encouraging recovery. Most raptors are now illegal to capture or hunt — Donald Trump Jr., please take note. And stealing or transporting raptor eggs or hatchlings is also illegal in most countries. Still, the penalties for these crimes are relatively puny.
Cops-and-robbers stories cry out for a stalwart good guy; in The Falcon Thief, it’s Andy McWilliam, a retired British copper and counterterrorism officer, now a senior investigator for Britain’s National Wildlife Crime Unit.
Liverpudlian McWilliam, pushing 60 and a tad overweight, is not as compelling a figure as the athletic and criminally nonchalant Lendrum, but this good guy makes up for his unimposing presence with an inspiring, if lately acquired, commitment to the cause. McWilliam is critical to bringing the bad guy to ground, at least temporarily, in a judicial universe that doesn’t always perceive Lendrum’s depredations as serious crimes.
But the delight in reading The Falcon Thief arises not so much from its core narrative of pursuit and unmasking as from the background details the author assembles and energetically presents, as he did to great effect in The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu.
Cases in point: Hammer’s invocation of past vendettas against peregrines and other falcons by 1) shotgun-wielding British pigeon fanciers and 2) estate gamekeepers (imagine the muttonchops!) determined to preserve the rich harvest of small, shootable wildlife for their aristocratic masters.
On the other (i.e., preservationist) side of the coin, Hammer showcases the heroics of dedicated falcon breeders keen to advance the mechanics of artificial insemination, during which a trusted human caretaker wears a feathery headdress mimicking the female of the species. The hope: to entice a recalcitrant male raptor to alight topside and, well, you know…yield up his essence.
Beyond this, I shall not go (though the author does). You’ll have to read this fascinating book for yourself to find out how the above process plays out on the other end.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2020.]
Bob Duffy is a Maryland author and reviewer.