Ruth Harris Thomas (1900–1973)
Ruth Harris Thomas was a highly regarded amateur ornithologist whose column on birding in Arkansas was published by the Arkansas Gazette for about forty years. Her column not only documented area birds, but it also contributed to a growing appreciation for birds, birding, and habitat conservation.
Ruth Harris was born in Kentucky on August 25, 1900, to Charles O. Harris and Columbia B. Cox Harris. She had two brothers. Majoring in English and journalism, Harris graduated from Louisiana State University in 1923, where she also edited the student newspaper. She moved to Little Rock (Pulaski County) in the autumn of 1923 to work as a reporter for the Arkansas Gazette newspaper.
In 1927, she married Maine native Stanley Powers Rowland Thomas, an associate editor at the Arkansas Gazette. Thomas, who was twenty-one years older than his wife, was a highly regarded author and reporter by the time he came to Arkansas. They had no children.
Ruth Thomas gave up her reporting job when she married. The Thomases lived briefly on Petit Jean Mountain, but they bought an old farmhouse and fifteen acres on a hilltop near North Little Rock (Pulaski County) in 1930. J. N. Heiskell, editor of the Gazette, asked Rowland Thomas to write a column on country life, but Ruth soon took over the column, which became known as “The Country Diarist.”
Her interest in birds grew with time, and she received a federal permit to capture and band birds for identification and research purposes in 1937. She corresponded widely with other amateur ornithologists, including Margaret Morse Nice of Oklahoma and Amelia Laskey of Tennessee. Between 1941 and 1952, she published nine scientific papers on birds, including the first thorough life history of the eastern bluebird—a forty-page study that was published by the prestigious Wilson Bulletin. It won Thomas elective membership in the American Ornithologists’ Union in 1950. She also published important work on the Carolina wren.
Thomas’s best-known work involved her nearly decade-long observation of a brown thrasher with a broken wing. She banded the bird in 1937 (put an identification tag on it) and named it “Crip.” In 1952, Harper & Brothers published her book Crip, Come Home: The Story of a Bird Who Came to Stay, which went through several printings; part of the book was reprinted in Reader’s Digest magazine. The 175-page volume is endearingly written and is far more than a simple bird story. Thomas not only chronicles the challenges faced by a wounded bird, but she also tells the story of her deeply committed marriage and her husband’s chronic illness and eventual death in May 1945.
She continued her work with birds—and her column. However, the loss of her husband might have exacerbated her psychological depression, which certainly worsened over time, as seen in her correspondence.
Douglas James and Joe Neal, authors of Arkansas Birds, believe Thomas’s column “generated an interest that ultimately resulted in the formation of the Arkansas Audubon Society.” The society created the Ruth Thomas Scholarship, which supports environmental education. She also played a leading role in convincing the legislature to adopt legislation protecting raptors.
In 1948, Thomas sold her farm, named Crip’s Hill, and moved to Morrilton (Conway County), where she continued observation of her backyard birds—banding and writing about them. She continued to write her column until her death on February 8, 1973.
For additional information:
“20-Year-Old Gazette Column Starts Ornithologist’s Career.” Arkansas Gazette, March 9, 1952, p. 2F.
“Columnist for Gazette Dies at Age 72.” Arkansas Gazette, February 9, 1973, p. 13B.
Ruth Thomas Papers. Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Thomas, Ruth. Crip, Come Home. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1952.
Last Updated: 11/30/2020