As a boy in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), the charming and athletic Lendrum’s keen interest in birds and his readiness to volunteer on their behalf made him a favorite at clubs devoted to matters avian. Behind his winning facade, however, lurked a poor student who failed at almost everything he tried — except stealing eggs and chicks from nests, a skill taught to him by his father.
Young Lendrum’s prowess earned him a raffish preeminence 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 $2,500 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.
In other cases, live eggs or chicks are sold to recipients who hope to raise rare birds in captivity. As the mainstays of a sport going back to at least 700 B.C., falcons fall into the latter category. 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. Once, for example, while transporting falcon chicks, Hammer explains, Lendrum removed the birds from his bag at the airport, “to avoid the baggage scan machine, where their bones would be visible. Instead he put them carefully in the pockets of his fleece, and walked them through the metal detector.” Ducking into a bathroom, Lendrum put the chicks back in his rucksack and boarded his flight. He stored the bag in the overhead compartment, listened for the birds’ cheeps when they got hungry, and took the rucksack into the nearest toilet, where he fed his charges “a blend of minced calf liver and raw egg yolk.” Lendrum was apparently motivated as much by the thrills he felt as by the money he made. “He likes to beat the system,” one of his friends observed. “That’s been his thing since he was a kid.”
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 realized 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.”
How McWilliam finally nailed his man should be left for Hammer — best known for his book “The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu” — to tell, which he does in high style. When it was all over, McWilliam was a star among policemen, and the British authorities were taking illegal traffic in endangered species more seriously than ever. As for Lendrum, now in his late 50s, he is serving time but scheduled to be released next year. Will he finally have straightened himself out, or will he go back to what he does best: attacking the sanctity of the wild?
Dennis Drabelle, a former contributing editor of Book World, writes frequently on environmental issues.
THE FALCON THIEF
A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery, and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird
By Joshua Hammer
Simon & Schuster. 336 pp. $26