David L. Emerson, Distinguished Naturalist 2004

EmersonIn 2004, the Rhode Island Natural History Survey recognized David L. Emerson with its Distinguished Naturalist Award at the Survey’s 9th Annual Conference, “Ecological Research in Rhode Island,” on March 5, 2004, at Rhodes On-the-Pawtuxet in Cranston. Emerson was honored “for deepening our understanding of Rhode Island’s avifauna and generously sharing his knowledge with a new generation of ornithologists.” The following remarks were prepared by long-time Rhode Island Ornithological Club (RIOC) colleague Richard Ferren, professor emeritus of environmental and life sciences at Berkshire Community College:

No one since Harry Hathaway has been more central to the Rhode Island birding community than David L. Emerson. He was among the charter members and the nearly permanent secretary of the RIOC, organized their activities for many decades, and served as the organization’s president for more than 30 years. He became the compiler of the Newport/Westport Christmas Bird Count in the 1950s and continued in that capacity for more than 50 years. One of his most important contributions was the periodic update of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island (ASRI)/RIOC “Checklist of Rhode Island Birds,” including the latest revision published by ASRI in 2003. Most importantly, he became the one-man compiler, editor, and commentator for the Field Notes of Rhode Island Birds between 1980 and 1995. Trained in meteorology at Harvard, he continued to write the “Weather Commentary” for the Field Notes up to within a few months of his death.

Born in 1924, David was a graduate of Moses Brown School in Providence and received his bachelor’s degree in physics, magna cum laude, from Harvard College in 1945. He served as an engineering officer in the U.S. Navy and saw duty in the Pacific at the end of World War II. After the war, he worked for 28 years in the family-owned Rhode Island Cardboard Company in Pawtucket, a specialty paperboard manufacturing company established by his grandfather and continued by his father. Ultimately David served as its general manger and treasurer. After the business was sold in 1976, he worked as a sales manager for Boise Cascade Corporation and later for Baird and Bartlett Company of Brockton, Mass., until his retirement in 1990.

David was a careful compiler and analyzer of Rhode Island bird records. He maintained a long fascination with bird migration and the vagaries of weather, carefully tracking daily patterns in wind, precipitation, and temperature. At the same time, he sifted through the mountains of ornithological field data submitted by the state’s birding community to prepare a clear and concise monthly compilation of bird records along with a summation of the weather during the period. Well in advance of the appearance of personal computers, he analyzed Christmas Bird Count data for all of southern New England, drawing graphs by hand of increasing or decreasing trends.

In addition, David was a former member of the ASRI Board of Directors, and helped to organize several of their annual birder’s conferences. He was also a member of the Rhode Island Avian Rarities Committee and was a longtime member of Cambridge’s Nuttall Ornithological Club—one of the most distinguished groups of its kind in the country.

Unfortunately, David contracted cancer in the fall of 2003 and died in January before he could receive the RINHS 2004 Distinguished Naturalist Award. But the Rhode Island birding community will long remember him as a supportive member, ever willing to discuss an ornithological mystery, ponder a tough identification problem, and share his skills with up-and-coming birders.