Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Richard Pough

I am in the process of writing a couple of reviews of new field guides, and wanted to look up Richard Pough, who wrote my beloved Audubon Land Bird Guide and Audubon Water Bird Guide. So I did a Google search, and at the top was a New York Times obituary--he died four years ago this month.

Richard Pough was one of the founders, and the first president, of The Nature Conservancy. The New York Times obituary says:
Through his long career, which included stints at the National Audubon Society and the American Museum of Natural History, Mr. Pough (pronounced poe) also wrote a series of Audubon guides on birds; helped to get a law banning the sale of wild-bird feathers; became one of the first to warn of the dangers of DDT; established several important preservation groups; and inadvertently established the house finch population of the eastern United States.
How was he connected with establishing the House Finch in the East?

Mr. Pough's efforts on behalf of a less exotic wild bird had unforeseen and wide-ranging consequences.

Noticing a Macy's advertisement offering ''California linnets,'' he went to Macy's and recognized the birds as house finches, natives of the West Coast protected by federal law. He again alerted federal agents, who began shutting down dealers who supplied the birds to Macy's and pet stores. But agents could not act quickly enough; some dealers, hoping to avoid fines, simply opened their windows and shooed the birds out. By 1941, the birds had spread across Long Island and today inhabits areas from Mississippi to Canada.

I was particularly fond of my Audubon bird guides because they focused on so much more interesting information than the Golden and Peterson guides. As the New York Times noted:

While Mr. Pough was protecting birds, he was also writing about them. His Audubon Bird Guide was published in 1946. Unlike the Audubon field guides by Roger Tory Peterson, which bird-watchers use to identify birds in the wild, Mr. Pough's guide provided information about behavior and arguments supporting species protection.

It's been a while since I thought about Richard Pough. But he led a life worth emulating. I particularly liked this:

On his 94th birthday, Mr. Pough told The New York Times about his first experience as a preservation advocate, when, at age 18, he set out to save the largest Indian mounds in the Mississippi Valley from being plundered by souvenir hunters. Taking an Illinois legislator to the site, he extracted a promise to save the mounds, but faced the obvious question: ''What's in it for you?''

''I said, 'Nothing,' '' Mr. Pough recalled. ''But it taught me a lesson I never forgot. There was never going to be anything in it for me in any civic activity I undertook, a principle I have adhered to all my life.''


  1. Laura: Some other info about Richard Pough. He was an early visitor to Hawk Mountain back in the '30's. In fact the famous photos you may have seen of dead hawks stretched out on the ground were some of his. He attended college in Philly and came up to Hawk mountain either when he was in college or shortly after graduation. He physically tried to stop the shooting going on there, to no effect at the time. His photographs helped end the shooting, though.

    Carolyn H.

  2. I knew Dick Pough.

    It is noteworthy that Richard is not mentioned anywhere in the visitor's center at Hawk Mountain, even though an enormous copy of the famous photo you mention is on display. I know, I was there not a month ago. Made me mad, it did.

    The essays in the Audubon books include some wonderful forensic exercises. The piece concerning the passenger pigeon, already extinct at the time of the writing is a case in point, as the writer considers and discards the usual explainations of what heppened to a species that once filled the skies. Richard's son Tris has told me that Richard got considerable help in crafting the prose from his wife Moria, by the way.

    Dick Pough was a grand man, of courtly manners and an unending curiousity. He had a wonderful long run at life - he passed away at 99 years of age - but then he had an awful lot to accomplish. He is missed.