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Communicating a Great Love of Birds and Nature

Gifted Writer

Burr Heneman

Photo courtesy Seth Bunnell.
“An American Bittern stands still as stone only 20 feet away. Through our scopes we can see ourselves mirrored off the black pupil of its glaring yellow eye.”

That’s Rich, the deep observer, seeing, assimilating, and reveling in everything in nature. And it’s not just the bittern, or the bittern’s eye: we are included, reflected in the eye. Rich made anthropomorphizing respectable again—if it’s done well. Though it has not been much in fashion lately, Rich quite naturally put us—and even our gods—into his writing:

“If you had been God building the natural world—detailing the web of life, assigning all the special jobs needed on Earth, and creating special beasts to string it all together—would you have thought of... hummingbirds?!?”

For Rich, the human species is integrated into nature, and part of our nature is to enjoy it all. Here he suggests the payoff for making the effort to really see what Violet-green Swallows look like:

“Why not throw a party for your eyes?”

The “jizz” of a bird is, by definition, hard to describe, but Rich had the knack for putting it into words—a bit of magic that opens the arcane world of challenging IDs to even beginning birders.

“When foraging, Wilson’s Storm-petrels just seem to dangle like little marionettes, on open wings, pattering on the surface with their long legs much extended.”

Or this, on accipiter flight:

“Sharp-shinneds are the most tight and twinkly, Cooper’s are more loose and floppy, and Goshawks are the heaviest, not unlike the heft of Red-shouldered Hawks, but they accelerate with deeper, more frantic wingbeats.”

Although Rich’s “Focus” articles began as aids to identification, they weren’t just about the birds. His love of “the feathered nation” led inevitably to his bedrock conservation ethic. He could apply his eloquence and uncompromising conservation values to controversy, as in this example concerning cats:

“Songbird populations on every continent are in steep decline. While pollution, acid rain, clear-cutting of tropical and domestic forests, global warming, and human sprawl are serious environmental adversaries, an agent every bit as detrimental to small birdlife in North America may be crouched in ambush in your back yard—or curled up in your lap.”

(Cats take a far greater toll on native birds and small mammals in the U.S. than previously estimated. Find the story at (search for “killer cats”) or

Of course, it wasn’t all identification or conservation seriousness. Rich’s droll humor was such an important part of the package: witness his Bird-A-Thon team, the Ninja Kinglets. Or his suggestion in a 1998 “Focus” that he planned to join the trend for lavish coffee-table books (such as Herons of the World and Shorebirds of North America) with his own entry—Wrentits of the World, on a family containing only one species.

In 1983, I asked Rich to write a remembrance of his good friend, Bill Clow, who had just died, tragically young. Loved by many in the bird world, Bill had been assigned to the Palomarin Field Station for alternative service as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. With Rich, he helped lead immensely popular PRBO excursions in California, Mexico, and Central America. Here is the ending of Rich’s remembrance of Bill:

“A friend and colleague has gone ahead. As the rest of us will follow, we may be sure that the other side will be safe and carefully scouted. Once again we may confidently follow in his tracks.”

I have recalled these words many times in the 30 years since. I can’t imagine a more fitting epitaph for Rich himself.