Douglas L. Kraus, 1998 Distinguished Naturalist

by Richard Ferren and Rick Enser

If one person was to be named as the most prominent, or important, and certainly tenacious, Rhode Island bird observer of all time, it would certainly be Douglas L. Kraus.

Doug grew up partly in Princeton, Massachusetts. His father was a research chemist at MIT until 1914 and later at Clark University, but when he came to work at Brown University in 1924 the family moved to Rhode Island. Like his father, Doug studied chemistry, first at Brown as an undergraduate and later at Berkeley where he received a Ph.D. in 1937. In 1938 he was hired to teach chemistry at the University of Rhode Island, and has lived in the Kingston area ever since, (except for a brief time at CalTech during the latter part of World War II).

Among Doug’s first Rhode Island bird discoveries were the significant flocks of Canvasbacks off Gaspee Point in the late 1920s, as noted in the typewritten records of Harry Hathaway. During these years Doug became involved in leading field trips in the Providence area for Mrs. Walter’s Education Committee at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. He also made occasional forays south to the Kimball Sanctuary, or to visit Harry Hathaway at Quonochontaug, and it was on these trips that Doug first gained a taste for birding in South County. He marks 1933 as his first record-keeping year about South County birdlife.

From 1938 to the present, Doug has been involved in what is unquestionably the longest, and among the most thorough, pieces of field work ever accomplished in Rhode Island. Since 1938 he has combed the South County area on a constant basis and has amassed a vast volume of written records of birds seen along the south shore, as well as since 1950 on his Kingston farm. He is so meticulous a reader of the journals and recorder of everything he sees that his voluminous records are probably more important than those of any other single Rhode Island observer. A portion of these records include the vast amount of data accumulated through banding birds on his farm beginning in the mid-1950s and continuing to 1994. Participating in a number of Christmas Birds Counts, in 1940 he began the Kingston CBC which he has presided over ever since.

The Little Rest Bird Club was organized in 1945 by Stanley Gairloch, but thereafter it was essentially run by Doug until its informal disbanding in the mid-1980s. During the Club’s heyday there were screen tour lectures and a half-dozen field trips each spring, and others in the fall. In later years Doug continued to lead caravans of birdwatchers throughout South County during various seasons, and many a present-day observer credits Doug with first instilling in them an enthusiasm for bird study. Doug was one of the charter members of the Rhode Island Ornithological Club which was formed in 1939, and has remained active to the present, especially involving the continual updating of the Checklist of Rhode Island Birds. His interest in conservation is exemplified through his long-time service on the Board of Directors of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.

In every respect, Doug has been the Ludlow Griscom of Rhode Island field ornithology. No Rhode Islander has taken a more scholarly approach to the problems of identifying rare birds. As of 1997, he has been involved in the discovery of at least ten species previously unknown in Rhode Island, as well as many second and third state records. He was the first to confirm the Willow Flycatcher nesting in the state, and the last to witness the Henslow’s Sparrow during its peak. His field efforts have unearthed the widest possible assortment of unusual vagrants and stragglers, as well as many unseasonable arrivals and lingerers. Dick Ferren notes that among all the observers whose records are cited in his voluminous “Birds of Rhode Island,” Doug’s initials are listed more often than any other observer.

In 1997, Doug’s birding activities in Rhode Island have exceeded 73 years, and his tenure as a South County bird observer spans 64 years. Had Doug’s father not come to Brown in 1924, or if Doug had remained in California after the war, what is known of Rhode Island’s birds would be remarkably diminished, and we would all have been the losers.

Compiled by Richard Ferren, RINHS member and Professor at Berkshire Community College, and Rick Enser, vice-president of the RINHS Board of Directors and Coordinator of the R.I. Natural Heritage Program.

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