Both a hero and a thief

Dennis Drabelle

The WASHINGTON POST – Hikers and birders tend to warm up fast to others of their kind. Anyone who shares your willingness to trek for miles in the wilderness or rappel down a cliffside to count the birds in a nest is bound to be simpatico. This prejudice helped Jeffrey Lendrum, the title villain of Joshua Hammer’s entertaining and illuminating new book, The Falcon Thief, to maintain a dual identity for decades: heroic birder and merciless thief.

As a boy in Rhodesia, the charming and athletic Lendrum’s keen interest in birds and his readiness to volunteer on their behalf made him a favourite at clubs devoted to matters avian. Behind his winning façade, however, lurked a poor student who failed at almost everything he tried – except stealing eggs and chicks from nests, a skill taught him by his father.

Young Lendrum’s prowess earned him a raffish pre-eminence among his peers. One of his boyhood friends recalled climbing a tree to filch sparrow hawk eggs only to find a nest with two things in it, a common chicken egg and a message left by the competitive Lendrum: “Too late, sucker.”

Lendrum fell under suspicion when, time after time, he would report having seen a clutch of eggs only to have another birder check his work and find an empty nest. In 1983, a police raid on the family home uncovered a cabinet full of eggs, many of them from endangered species. Lendrum’s father claimed that he and the lad were legitimate birders and this was “just a schoolboy collection”. The cops were having none of it. Father and son were convicted on multiple counts of theft and illegal possession, fined the equivalent of USD2,500 each, and given suspended jail sentences.

While pretending to be a changed man, Lendrum turned his specialty into a commercial enterprise. Delivered to the right parties, stolen bird eggs or chicks can bring handsome sums, all the handsomer for species protected by international law. In some cases, the eggs are valued for themselves, as objects of striking beauty – although because it’s illegal to possess them without a permit, they must be kept hidden in drawers or attics. Falcon thievery became the adult Lendrum’s crime of choice, the United Arab Emirates a major source of his frequent-flier miles. The tricky chore of smuggling contraband across international borders became even dicier after 9/11, and the methods Lendrum devised called for all the chutzpah he possessed.

For all of Lendrum’s bravado, now and then he got caught, sometimes by chance. One time, he was nabbed because he went into an airport shower room; stayed 20 minutes, trying the patience of a janitor who wanted to get in and mop the place up; and emerged without leaving a single drop of water behind. The suspicious janitor pointed him out to security officers, who apprehended Lendrum, who had eggs hidden in the clothes he’d changed into. But only Lendrum knows how many times he got away with the same sort of thing, and as portrayed by Hammer, he seems larcenous to the bone.

He finally met his match in Andy McWilliam, a British cop who was getting bored with police work until he realised that his hobby of birdwatching made him a natural at catching egg thieves. What he learned of culprits like Lendrum “reinforced McWilliam’s view that egg collecting was an act of pure selfishness, an attack on the sanctity of the wild”.

Joshua Hammer’s entertaining and illuminating new book, ‘The Falcon Thief’. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST