The Falcon Thief: A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery, and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird by Joshua Hammer

In my newsroom days, when a reporter had one of those occasional stories that topped anything a novelist or screenwriter might invent, he was encouraged to “Get out of its way.”

That is, Just tell it. Nothing fancy required.

Joshua Hammer has this kind of story in The Falcon Thief, and he does a fine job of getting out of its way. A man spends too long in the lav at Birmingham Airport, triggering the suspicions of a janitor who, in this age of terror, has been trained to be suspicious. His alarm results in the arrival of airport police, who question one Jeffrey Lendrum, a native of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) traveling on an Irish passport, who, when searched, is found to have “ribbons of white surgical tape … wrapped around his abdomen. Tucked snugly beneath the tape were one green, one black, and one blue woolen sock. Plastic zip ties divided each sock into five segments, and inside each segment was an oval-shaped object.”

The oval shapes turn out to be fertile eggs, stolen from the nests of rare wild peregrine falcons in the Rhondda Valley of South Wales. Lendrum had been bound for Dubai, where falcon-collecting royalty pay top dollar for these specimens. Just stealing eggs from vertiginous raptor roosts would demand extraordinary patience and pluck, serious ornithological know-how, and remarkable climbing skills. Add to it the delivery of the exotic plunder in a viable state—itself a delicate, exacting task—and it was hard not to be impressed.

An Egg Today, a Fortune Tomorrow

Moving back in time from the arrest, Hammer traces Lendrum’s long, thieving path across many years and continents while also charting the more pedestrian but perhaps equally unusual career of Andy McWilliam, a British former police officer who over many years turned himself into his country’s premier wildlife-conservation lawman. Both stories are unique, and both men eccentric, dogged, and accomplished.

Jeffrey Lendrum arrives at Warwick Crown Court following his arrest at Birmingham Airport.

The details of their stories stray from one bizarre realm to another, from the illicit-hobbyist sub-branch of oology—where certain obsessive collectors are driven by an attraction to eggs that seems almost sexual, risking their lives in some cases to possess obscure samples—to the extravagant falcon-racers who crave a regular infusion of wild genes to improve the predatory instincts and skills of their captive falcon strains. Hammer’s story is startling from the first page to the last.

Lendrum’s hidden bounty turns out to be fertile eggs, stolen from the nests of rare wild peregrine falcons.

Lendrum’s daring and ingenuity amaze at the same time as his judgment appalls. Posing as a dedicated conservationist, he cons local ornithologists into revealing hidden roosts. There is video of him (you can find it online) in far-northern Quebec calmly and cheerfully suspended from a helicopter at the end of a 100-foot static line. From here, he plunders the roost of a legally protected gyrfalcon as the chopper’s rotors flirt with disaster, inches from the cliff’s rock face. Just one of the eggs pocketed on that expedition could earn him, conservatively estimated, tens of thousands of dollars.

Lendrum’s adventures could fill an action movie. Facing a prison sentence for smuggling in Brazil, he flees on foot, “carrying a GPS and a day’s supply of food and water,” to Argentina, and from there to safety in Johannesburg. Those times when he is successfully apprehended and tried, the punishments or fines are for the most part laughably small in comparison to his potential criminal rewards. But in the end, Lendrum seems to have been driven less by money than by the thrill of his exploits.

The Anti–Robin Hood

There is no indication that Hammer intended it, but The Falcon Thief might work as a useful parable in this age of global warming and the yawning gap between the world’s haves and have-nots. A reverse Robin Hood, Lendrum, in effect, stole from the poor and gave to the rich, poaching from the earth’s increasingly impoverished stores of wild raptors in order to feed the gaming appetites of opulent Arabs.

Peregrine-falcon chicks hatched from Lendrum’s stolen eggs.

But the story isn’t that simple. The admiration for remarkable birds that drives falconry and racing in the Middle East can, if properly reined in, work in favor of their preservation. And the biggest threat to endangered birds worldwide is not egg thievery, but loss of habitat and pollution—far more of these gorgeous creatures are sacrificed to agricultural practices and climate change than to sticky-fingered climbers like Lendrum. He is very aware of this, presenting himself as a bird-lover at heart, working to save rare birds from near-certain death in the increasingly hostile wilds. And he has a point. Hammer reports that about 60 percent of wild gyrfalcons do not survive a year after hatching.

Lendrum poached from the earth’s impoverished stores to feed the gaming appetites of opulent Arabs.

But Lendrum is no bird savior, and egg thieves do severe damage. Demand for saker falcons, a very large species found in Russia, reduced their wild population from an estimated 60,000 to just 2,000 pairs from 1986 to 2006. The culprits there were thought to be Syrian and Lebanese students studying at Russian universities.

Appreciation for the seriousness of such crimes has grown, but the penalties remain comparatively light. After the careful case built by McWilliam convicts Lendrum in a British courtroom, the judge reads to him from a sentencing guide for wildlife criminals (“The environmental crime strikes not only at a locality and its population but at the planet and its future”) and then sentences him to two and a half years—a term in excess of what McWilliam expected, and one that leaves Lendrum stunned. But the term would be reduced to just 18 months on appeal, much of which he had served awaiting trial.

As of this writing, Lendrum was nearing the end of his prison term, fighting extradition to Brazil. If he succeeds, he’ll be a free man again soon, and, by what Hammer has learned about him, is likely to resume his lifelong pursuits. You can’t make such things up.

Mark Bowden’s The Last Stone will be released in paperback next month