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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

A Life in Service to the Birds: America’s Pioneering Woman Ornithologist, Florence Merriam Bailey

In the late eighteenth century, it would have been not at all unusual to run into a woman on the streets of New York wearing upon her head a hat some three feet in diameter, adorned by the full corpses and random feathers of multiple species of rare birds. The demand of the millinery industry for exotic feathers and birds was so high that species were being driven to the brink of extinction as hunters scoured the United States for new sources, wiping out entire rookeries to feed the fad. It is never an easy thing to get humans to set aside their appetites and desires in order to save creatures that don’t have a voice to proclaim their innocence, but one person found a way to accomplish just that, making the protection of birds a federal cause, while also building a career as the most important ornithologist of the American West of her generation, Florence Merriam Bailey (1863-1948).

Her first published piece about birds came out in 1885, and her last book, an account of the bird populations of the Grand Canyon, was published in 1939, representing a sprawling fifty-four year career in bringing not just the physiological dimensions of different bird species to the attention of other specialists, as previous authors had done, but of detailing their behaviors in the wild for an audience of both ornithologists and lay enthusiasts, in the hope that, by going out into nature and knowing the birds as living creatures, people might be a little less willing to destroy them in the name of passing fashion.

Florence’s passion for nature was one she shared with most of the members of the well-to-do Merriam family into which she was born on August 8, 1863, the day after her sister Gertie passed away. Her mother, a graduate of Rutgers Female College (which existed from 1838 to 1894), was a passionate amateur astronomer, and her father, a Congressman from 1871 to 1875, was keen on geology and corresponded regularly with John Muir on the subject. Her aunt was a talented botanist, and her older brother, Clinton Hart Merriam (1855-1942), published “A Review of the Birds of Connecticut” when Florence was eleven years old, and went on to a career as first a physician, and then a naturalist who played a key role in the early years of both the US Biological Survey and the American Ornithologists’ Union. With relatives such as these, and the wooded environs of the family estate at Homewood in the Adirondack Mountains to explore, Florence did not lack for scientific inspiration, and though her formal schooling before attending Smith College was of a decidedly irregular sort, its lack was more than compensated for by the presence of so many talented individuals willing to tell her everything they knew about their scientific investigations.

In 1882, Merriam arrived on the campus of Smith College, which had only opened some seven years previously as a women’s college (and which in its years of operation has boasted a mind-boggling roster of trailblazing alumni, from Sylvia Plath to Gloria Steinem, and Madeleine L’Engle to Betty Friedan). Because of her lack of formal education, she was ineligible to enter as a regular student, and instead had to rest content with “Special” student status, which meant she could take whatever upper division courses she wanted without worrying about fulfilling freshman prerequisites, but also that she would not receive her diploma at the end of her studies. Smith at the time had little to offer in terms of scientific opportunities, so Merriam made her own, opening an Audubon society on campus (not to be confused with the Audubon Society, which was formed by George Bird Grinnell in 1886), and leading its members herself on regular early-morning bird-watching tours of the local environs. The direct contact with flying and singing birds inspired her fellow students to take up cudgels with her against the millinery industry and its ghoulish use of rare bird feathers and bodies as decorations for women’s hats (one of Florence’s college friends excitedly described to her a hat she saw a woman wearing in the city that had thirteen dead birds attached to it). Florence’s first article, “An Appeal to Women”, was published in the Watertown Times in November of 1885, and was followed by “Fall Hats” in the Turin Gazette, “Fashion and Law” in the Boonville Herald, “French Milliners and Bird Murder” in the Evening Star, “French Milliners or Conscience” in the National Eagle, and “A Plea for the Birds” in the Watertown Times, all appearing in 1886.

In recognition of her efforts both to create the Smith College Audubon Society, and to educate the public about the high cost of its mania for fancy hats, Florence was nominated for, and given, associate status in the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU), which had just been formed two years before as the US equivalent of the British Ornithologists’ Union, and continues its work to this day as the American Ornithologists’ Society. Realizing that the best way to stop somebody from killing a bird was to teach them about all of the small marvels to be discovered while observing birds, after her graduation in 1886 she took up her pen to write a series of engaging articles for The Audubon Magazine offering advice not only on how to identify common bird species, but charming tales about their behavior and song, rendering them as living characters to be reverently observed.

If full time employment was not exactly forthcoming after her graduation from Smith, Florence nonetheless was not lacking for role models in how to forge her own path forward. Olive Thorne Miller (1831-1918), Althea Sherman (1853-1943), Mabel Osgood Wright (1859-1934), and Neltje Blanchan (1865-1918) were all actively engaged in studying and writing about birds in the 19th century, and were highly respected members of the ornithological community in addition to (with the exception of Sherman) being commercially successful authors. In 1890, she published a collection of her bird observations, Birds Through an Opera Glass, which was hailed as a valuable new approach to the genre. The mention of the “opera glass” in the title was a statement of her revolutionary intent - rather than employing “the gun” as her main tool of observation, killing birds in order to write accurately about their physical structures, she had chosen the opera glass, which was less accurate in recording the dimensions of the animals she observed, but of infinitely greater use in studying their life habits and cycles.

Her work as an ornithological author brought her within the radius of Olive Thorne Miller, who had begun as an author of nature books for children, including the steady best-seller Little Folks in Feathers and Fur (1875), before branching out into books for an older audience, such as Bird-ways (1885) and In Nesting Time (1888), which were foundational in establishing women’s ability to write seriously and rigorously about ornithology, and which as such smoothed the way for the acceptance of Merriam’s books. In 1893, in an attempt to cure the creeping tuberculosis that had just recently taken the life of her own mother, Merriam went out West to Utah to live with Miller for a while, and observe the life of the Mormon communities settled there. The result of this trip was her second book, My Summer in a Mormon Village (1894), a traditional travel book with a more even-handed treatment of Mormon society than was generally common at the time. She was not, however, to be kept from her beloved birds for long, and soon made her way to California, to attend the recently opened Stanford University for half a year, visit with relatives in Twin Oaks, and wander the state on horseback, collecting observations of the as yet incompletely documented bird life to be found there.

Her account of her time in California, A-birding on a Bronco (1896), was a further advancement on the ideas she had developed in Birds Through an Opera Glass, presenting a volume that was part travelog, part natural history, and part advertisement for women’s ability to carry out field studies in arduous conditions. Returning to her brother’s house in Washington DC after her Western adventures, she set about writing not only her California book, but a text detailing the economic benefit of birds as insect hunters for the farming community, a role since taken over by a small ocean of chemicals that have wrought all manner of ecological disaster.

On December 16, 1899, Florence married Vernon Bailey, a mammalist in the employ of the US Biological Survey, and a good friend of her brother Hart for decades. Thus began one of the great fairy tales in the history of field biology, a forty-four year partnership of equals that saw the couple exploring the American Southwest, he cataloguing its mammal life, and she its bird life, camping their way through unmapped territory, and writing the books that would lay out the explosive diversity of life to be found even in the nation’s starkest deserts. Vernon and Florence, who called each other “Mr. Dearie” and “Mrs. Dearie” in private company, were a powerful scientific combination that the government regularly sent out to document the animal diversity of emerging territories, with several expeditions to New Mexico, which would not be incorporated as a state until 1912.

Florence’s heretofore inconsistent health improved under the rigors of field expeditions, and soon the couple fell into a pattern of observing in the summer months, and returning to Washington DC to write up their notes in the winter. In 1902, Florence published her monumental Handbook of Birds of the Western United States, which stood as the definitive text for the region, as necessary for the ornithologist’s library as Frank Chapman’s landmark Handbook of Birds of the Eastern United States, published in 1895. Florence’s Handbook would go through eleven editions over the next three decades, a mark of its value to the ornithological community.

Post-Handbook, Florence’s efforts were directed towards describing in detail the bird-life to be found in North Dakota and New Mexico, two regions as yet vastly undocumented. These efforts, like her anti-millinery work of the late 19th century, had as one of its goals the protection of bird species through the attraction of federal protective legislation. By 1922, federal restrictions were finally passed by Congress on the use and importation of birds for the millinery industry, and soon efforts would be underway to protect the wildlife and geological wonders of the territories described by Vernon and Florence, including the Carlsbad Caverns of New Mexico. Her magnum opus, which took some twenty years to research, write, and find a publisher for, was 1928’s Birds of New Mexico, an 800 page behemoth that had to be underwritten by several different New Mexico preservation agencies as well as a small circle of private financiers in order to see the light of publication, but which upon its release was hailed as the landmark that it was.

Past retirement age, Vernon and Florence continued their explorations, Florence studying the locations, habits, sights, and sounds of the birds wherever they went, while Vernon went into business using his expertise in mammal studies to develop humane traps that he hoped would replace the cruel, leg breaking iron traps used for centuries by farmers and biologists. From these efforts emerged Florence’s Birds Recorded from the Santa Rita Mountains in Southern Arizona (1923) and her last book, Among the Birds in the Grand Canyon Country (1939). In her later life, she and Vernon were oracles visited by a bevy of the emerging generation’s most promising naturalists, seeking advice from the masters. In recognition of her efforts, she was the first woman awarded the AOU’s prestigious Brewster Medal (1931), and was also the first woman elected a fellow of that organization (1929). In 1921, Smith College at last awarded her the degree of Bachelor of the Arts that she had been ineligible to receive in 1886, and in 1933 the University of New Mexico, in honor of the work she had done to study the natural diversity of the territory, awarded her an honorary LL.D. degree.

Vernon passed away in 1942, a year after their final excursion together, a trip to upstate New York to see the aurora borealis, and of Florence’s own last years we know but little outside of the annual letters she sent to her Smith College Class of 1886 group, announcing that she felt good of health, and was living comfortably. Upon her death in 1948, she was hailed by the ornithological community for the focus she had brought on the study of birds as living beings, and for the injection of literary values she had accomplished in her works, providing portraits of birds that were accurate enough to be of use to the professional, but engaging enough to catch the imagination of the wider public, who could then go on to use their influence to vote for more protected places where birds were free to live the full measure of their lives. She taught a nation obsessed with motion how to sit still, and watch, and wonder, and in the process not only improved the lives of the birds, but our own as well.


Harriet Kofalk’s No Woman Tenderfoot: Florence Merriam Bailey, Pioneer Naturalist (1989) is the book to get, but if you aren’t ready to commit to a whole book about Bailey, Marcia Bonta’s Women in the Field: America’s Pioneering Women Naturalists (1991) is a good book about this whole generation of women who explored America’s obscure corners and documented what they found there.


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