Five of the Most Epic Bird Heists in History

When bird meets bandit, there's usually an unhappy ending. Here are some of the craziest.

In his new documentary, Poached, director Timothy Wheeler dives into the strange world of illegal egg collecting, exploring what compels someone to risk imprisonment to snatch up bird eggs. (Read a Q&A with him here.) To mark the film’s release—it’s available on iTunes and is screening in select cities across the United States—we’ve put together a list of high-profile bird heists from around the world.

Nest Crasher

Some people covet jewels. Some covet cars. But Matthew Gonshaw wants just one thing: eggs. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Londoner kept a private journal of bird breeding timetables and used climbing gear and camouflage to cherry-pick the nests of rare European species, such as Pied Avocets and Ospreys. In 2002 he became the third person ever incarcerated in the United Kingdom for stealing eggs, and he was arrested for the same offense twice in 2005. In the summer of 2011, Scotland Yard and an investigator from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds raided Gonshaw’s home and discovered his latest illicit nest: nearly 700 blown-out eggs, arranged by species type and housed in handmade cabinets. Gonshaw, who makes an appearance in Poached, was jailed for six months and received an “anti-social behavior” civil order, which bans him forever from  Scotland during bird breeding season. —Becca Cudmore

Death Race

In the world of competitive pigeon racing, some trainers would do anything for an edge—perhaps even rob a rival of his prized avian athlete. In December 2014 a six-year-old pedigreed Homing Pigeon vanished from champion Hans-Paul Esser’s locked aviary outside his Düsseldorf home, just weeks before Esser was to represent Germany at the 2015 world pigeon racing championships. Esser offered a $12,000 reward for the prize pigeon’s safe return—a fraction of the $184,000 such a fine specimen would normally fetch. Only birds with hardcore training and primo genetics can endure the championship race, in which a single heat can run 250 miles. Or maybe the thief wasn’t a rival but rather someone looking to give the poor pigeon an early retirement. According to a recent PETA investigation, more than 60 percent of entrants in such extreme contests perish from bad weather or exhaustion, or get lost before they reach the finish line. But as this case proves, they can also get lost—and never found—right back at home. —Raillan Brooks

Hollywood Heist

Where’s Sam Spade when you need him? In 2007 a replica of the raptor statue made famous in the 1941 Humphrey Bogart flick The Maltese Falcon was stolen out of a display case at John’s Grill in San Francisco. The owner of the restaurant—which had been the setting of a scene in the Dashiell Hammett novel that inspired the film—had received the plaster statue as a gift from one of the film’s actors, and when the statue went missing, he offered a $25,000 reward for its safe return. Sadly, the bird was never seen again, so the despondent owner made a replica of the replica—and put a lock on its glass case. —Purbita Saha

Citizen’s Arrest

Rufus the Harris’s Hawk, who’s charged with the important role of deterring pigeons from landing on the grassy courts at Wimbledon, is a fan favorite in the tennis world, and he’s even got his own Twitter handle. But one day during the 2012 tournament, the foot-long raptor didn’t show up for work; it turned out he’d been snatched from his owner Imogen Davis’s car. As soon as news of the abduction broke, fans flooded social media with pleas and support: “@RufusTheHawk, I hope the buggers who did it return you safely #FindRufus,” tweeted one. The public shaming might have motivated the thief to return the beloved hawk; Rufus showed up, unharmed, three days later at the headquarters of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Davis immediately tweeted the good news to the bird’s 8,000 followers, of course. —B.C.

Raiding the Coop

More than a century ago an avian caper turned Madison Square Garden into a garden of evil. At the Poultry and Pet Stock Show in 1906, bandits carried off seven prize-winning chickens, valued at $700 (more than $16,000 today). Among the snatched birds were a Silver Sebright and a Booted Pullet, named for its flamboyant foot feathers. The crime might have been one of opportunity rather than a carefully orchestrated abduction: The poultry pens had been left unlocked to give judges a close look at the striking breeds. —P.S.