by Kimberley Gaffett
The bare facts of Elizabeth Dickens’s life are easily quantified, but the extraordinary effect of her simply-led life is more than a measure of years. Elizabeth Dickens was born December 2, 1877 and died on June 17, 1963; she lived her entire life on Block Island, traveling only occasionally and then usually for reasons connected to her interest and renown in birds. Through her work with Block Island School children, her vision for and stewardship of the Block Island Bird Collection, her more than fifty years of daily bird observations, and her correspondence with well-known members of the natural history and birding community of her day, Elizabeth Dickens remains to this day a powerful resource and inspiration.
In 1909, Elizabeth shot what she thought was a huge black goose, which was later identified by her father, Lovell Dickens, as a Black Australian Swan. Elizabeth realized that the swan was a rare specimen that should be preserved and eventually the specimen ended up at the Museum of Natural History at Roger Williams Park in Providence, RI, and in the care of its curator, Harold Madison, Sr. (the Black Australian Swan and two other Block Island birds- Northern Gannet, 1914, and Razorbill Auk, 1916–also collected by Elizabeth Dickens, remain on display at the Museum). Mr. Madison was a friend of Elizabeth Dickens and in 1911 presented her with a set of Audubon Bird Leaflets and suggested that she might like to share them with the boys and girls in the Block Island district schools. From that time until 1960, Elizabeth Dickens taught Bird Study once a month to the school children of Block Island.
From all accounts Miss Dickens commanded a great deal of respect from the Island’s children. What may have seemed a small act of caring about birds and the Island’s children, ultimately metamorphosed into a process of imbuing the Island children (and thus future adults) with a strong ethic of care for birds and a concern for stewardship of the Island’s landscape and natural niches.
As the children (and adults) of Block Island developed their interest in birds they also became enthusiastic about contributing to Miss Dickens’s program of Bird Study, and would deliver to her dead birds that they had discovered. Elizabeth Dickens had a rule that she would not accept any bird that had been shot for the purpose of being added to her growing collection of mounted specimens. Thus most birds in the Bird Collection are the result of death by predator; death by striking a solid surface such as a window, wire, or (as in many cases from 1947) striking the Southeast Lighthouse; or death by some other untimely means. The Elizabeth Dickens Bird Collection is now an historic heirloom representing the significant contributions made by Elizabeth’s simple gifts of time and care.
In addition to being part of Miss Dickens’s legacy to Block Island, the Elizabeth Dickens Bird Collection is an important ornithological record that spans 43 years and contains 172 mounted specimens. The oldest birds in the collection are a Virginia Rail, Northern Phalarope, and Eastern Meadowlark, all found dead on Block Island in 1923; recent additions are Green-winged Teal, Northern Cardinal, and Red-headed Woodpecker, all added in 1966. A Bridled Tern (9-14 1960) was the first Rhode Island record of the species, a Blue Goose (11-18-1933) was the third record of the species in Rhode Island, and a Ruddy Shelduck (10-8-1951) was the third record for the species in North America. Other noteworthy specimens in the collection include such wonderful accidental wanderers as Magnificent Frigatebird 11/16/32, Northern Lapwing 11/20/32, and Snowy Owl (1937).
Elizabeth Dickens also contributed to the annals of ornithology through her half-century of daily bird sightings on Block Island. These journals, which she began in 1912, were bequeathed by Elizabeth Dickens to the Audubon Society of Rhode Island and are housed at their offices in Smithfield, RI. The journals are not only a treasure of ornithological sightings, they also remind us of the pleasure derived from observing birds and their habits and antics. And, the journals also offer a glimpse of Elizabeth Dickens’s life and the things that she held important.
Elizabeth Dickens’s journals as a contribution to the science of ornithology was augmented by her correspondence with many of the well known ornithologist and naturalists of her day. It is likely that one of the most prevalent correspondences that Elizabeth Dickens kept was with Harry S. Hathaway, a well-known Rhode Island naturalist. Elizabeth Dickens also corresponded with other well-known ornithologists such as A. C. Bent and Edward H. Forbush. Elizabeth Dickens’ contributions were heralded often. John W. Aldrich, Chief of the Section of Distribution of Birds and Mammals, U.S. Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service, wrote in 1956: “To her we owe practically all the knowledge we have of the place the Island holds as a stepping stone in the off-shore migration route of the Atlantic Flyway…..Our files contain many of her records, which have contributed importantly to the preparation of such texts as The Check List of North American Birds of the American Ornithologist’s Union, and the Life Histories of North American Birds by A. C. Bent” (Whitman, 1982).
Roland Clement, in a 1959 Yankee Magazine article about Elizabeth Dickens, coined the title “Bird Lady of Block Island” for Miss Dickens. To many this declaration of who Elizabeth Dickens was is straight-forward and sufficient. But in reality Elizabeth Dickens was much more. By pursuing what at first must have been a simple interest in birds, then by sharing that interest with her ever-expanding community comprised of children, neighbors and like-minded naturalists, this self-taught ornithologist contributed extraordinarily to the science of ornithology, and to what is today a developing land-use ethic for Block Island. This ethic, rooted in stewardship and care for the land and its indigenous inhabitants, was not actively taught or created by Elizabeth Dickens: she lived it. And therefore, it is by example that Elizabeth Dickens taught and inspired generations of students: young and old, near and far, amateurs and professionals, and most significantly, contemporaries and future generations.