Harry Hathaway (1869-1946), 2003 Posthumous Distinguished Naturalist

When one considers the most important and influential naturalists in Rhode Island history, high on that list–if, indeed, not at number one–would be Harry S. Hathaway. Considered by his contemporaries to be the “Dean of Rhode Island ornithologists,” it is without question that Hathaway contributed more to the understanding of the state’s avifauna than any other individual, and certainly came to play a central role in Rhode Island ornithology for more than 50 years.

Harry was born in Providence on May 22, 1869. When his father was appointed Superintendent of Public Parks in 1875 the family moved into the Betsy Williams cottage at Roger Williams Park, where they lived for seven years. During the country’s hundredth anniversary in 1876, Harry placed the first spadeful of earth on the “Centennial Elm” that was planted near the cottage. By his own admission, Harry became interested in birds at the age of thirteen when a classmate brought a bluebird’s egg to school, which he bought for three cents. The same year, his mother gave him a copy of Stearns and Coues’s New England Bird Life, which became a stimulus for his studies and the first item in his library. Throughout his life, the collection of books he amassed was renowned as the best assemblage of ornithological literature in the state, and on his death it became the basis of the library at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.

Realizing the importance of natural history collections, Harry began collecting bird’s eggs while still in high school, vowing to collect specimens of all of the state’s nesting birds. Also in tune with the era, he acquired a shotgun and began collecting and preparing skins of birds, and this material now exists as the principal part of the ASRI collections. More importantly, Harry bridged the old period of collecting birds and the more modern period of optical field birding, being the first to emphasize the importance of finding nests and documenting rare nesters, as well as monitoring all species and compiling that data in detailed notes. As Harry states in his autobiography:

In the early days of my collecting on foot I could visit nearby localities only. Later I acquired a bicycle which took me further afield with Mr. Fred E. Newbury as my companion in our quest of bird’s eggs. Later still I purchased a motor cycle which was replaced by an automobile, a Buick, bought in 1911. Thus the whole state became my field and I have been able to explore quite thoroughly the localities likely to expose new birds.

Throughout his many years of Rhode Island field study, Harry compiled a daily journal of his ventures, which now stands as one of the state’s most valuable natural history accounts. Within these volumes we learn of his discoveries, including the following additions to the State checklist: Atlantic Murre, Rough-winged Swallow, Acadian (Boreal) Chickadee, Bicknell’s Thrush, Greater (Hoary) Redpoll, Newfoundland (White-winged) Crossbill, Labrador (Ipswich) Savannah Sparrow, and Hudson Bay Sharp-tailed Sparrow. More importantly, he contributed several new breeding records for the state, including Rough-winged Swallow, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Hooded Warbler, Canada Warbler, and Henslow’s Sparrow.

In 1887, Harry entered Brown University where his interests in the natural sciences led him to a zoology course taught by Alpheus Spring Packard, and to a botany class with William Whitman Bailey. On graduation, however, he realized the limited opportunities for employment in ‘zoological pursuits,’ so he accepted a position with the Merchants National Bank of Providence, initially as a messenger. He remained with the bank for 35 years, retiring in 1924. Coinciding with his retirement, the Audubon Society acquired the estate of Walter H. Kimball in Charlestown, and knowing of Kimball’s wishes for the property to be preserved as a bird sanctuary, Harry agreed to oversee its development for that purpose. During the summers of 1924 and 1925, he instructed visitors, cut trails, erected bird houses, and planted hundreds of trees and shrubs as the first manager of the Kimball Wildlife Refuge.

In 1895, Harry spent his first vacation at Quonochontaug, where he honed his expertise in shorebirds, spending almost every day “tramping on the marshes.” Later he acquired a cottage on the beach where he spent the summer months and began to compile his observations along with the records of other bird students in the state, amassing a comprehensive record of more than 50 years of Rhode Island ornithological history. In 1938, the Great Hurricane swept across Quonochontaug and ripped through his home, carrying away furniture including an antique maple desk where he kept the card catalog and journals of a lifetime of bird records. Miraculously, the desk was discovered three days later on the edge of the marsh a mile and a half north of the house. Although the records were soaked, they were legible and nothing was missing, although a bookcase containing several volumes on birds was lost. This incident compelled Harry to have his records transcribed by Harold N. Gibbs to insure their safety, and four copies were prepared for the State Library and ASRI.

In addition to his journals and records, Harry published several articles during his lifetime, including The American Osprey (Bulletin of the Roger Williams Park Museum, 1905), and Notes on the Occurrence and Nesting of Certain Birds in Rhode Island (The Auk, 1913). In his autobiographical sketch, Harry modestly conceded that “the pursuit of a hobby is a desirable addition to one’s daily life, and from my experiences I can say with conviction that the study of birdlife still offers almost unlimited opportunities.” He foresaw a new volume on Rhode Island birds, saying, “It is my fond hope that my notes may form a part of the nucleus for such a volume so that I may feel that I have contributed to the knowledge of future students of Rhode Island Bird Life.”

Although few of us knew Harry Hathaway, we can gain some insight to his personality from a short memorial article written by Harold Madison, in which he stated: “To all he gave courteous and meticulous attention; nay, even more, he gave unreservedly of his experience and knowledge. From the time-consuming tasks we imposed upon him he did not flinch; for his was a labor of love the results of which he lived to see recorded for all time.”

It is with great honor and respect that the RINHS salutes Harry S. Hathaway for his invaluable contributions to an understanding of ornithology.

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