Overlooked No More: Florence Merriam Bailey, Who Defined Modern Bird-Watching

Overlooked is a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

By Jonathan Wolfe

In 1886, Manhattan was one of the richest bird-watching areas on the planet.

One ornithologist from the American Museum of Natural History counted 40 distinct species on two walks in the city, including California quail, scissor-tailed flycatchers and at least one greenbacked heron.

But these species were not seen flitting between buildings or filling the streets with song. What the ornithologist observed was their earthly remains adorning the hats of women who had succumbed to a fashion craze.

Milliners used the birds’ feathers, heads and even entire carcasses to decorate increasingly elaborate hats in the latter decades of the 19th century. The fashion trend led to the deaths worldwide of about five million birds a year.

To its devotees, the trend was fabulous. To Florence Merriam Bailey, it was murder.

“The birds must be protected; we must persuade the girls not to wear feathers in their hats,” she wrote in 1889 in Bird-Lore, an illustrated magazine published by the National Audubon Society.

A student at Smith College at the time, Bailey decided to start a grassroots effort, with a simple step: She took her fellow classmates outdoors.

“We won’t say too much about the hats,” she wrote in Bird-Lore. “We’ll take the girls afield, and let them get acquainted with the birds. Then of inborn necessity, they will wear feathers never more.”

It was the beginning of an animal rights campaign that evolved into a lifelong crusade of ecological conservationism and promotion of what would become modern day bird-watching. Bailey eventually traveled around the country to write about the pursuit.

Back then ornithology was generally practiced by examining “skins,” or dead birds preserved in universities or museums. Ornithologists typically trapped or shot birds and then decamped indoors to identify the bodies. Bailey, on the other hand, urged that birds be observed quietly in their natural habitat.

“Florence was one of the first bird-watchers to actually watch birds instead of shoot them,” Marcia Bonta, a naturalist and author of “Women in the Field: America’s Pioneering Women Naturalists” (1991), said in a phone interview.

In 1889, at the age of 26, Bailey published “Birds Through an Opera-Glass,” considered the first field guide to American birds. The book, one of many travelogues and field guides she would publish, suggested that the best way to view birds was through the lenses of opera glasses, not a shotgun sight. Her approach, now commonly practiced with binoculars, helped form the basis of modern bird-watching.

“When going to watch birds,” she wrote, “proceed to some good birdy place — the bushy bank of a stream or an old juniper pasture — and sit down in the undergrowth or against a concealing tree-trunk, with your back to the dun, to look and listen in silence.”

“The student who goes afield armed with opera-glass,” she added, “will not only add more to our knowledge than he who goes armed with a gun, but will gain for himself a fund of enthusiasm and a lasting store of pleasant memories.”

Soon hundreds of other women were protesting the millinery industry’s use of birds, an effort that led to the passage in 1900 of the Lacey Act, which prohibited trade in illegally acquired wildlife, and the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which protects migratory birds.

Florence Augusta Merriam was born on Aug. 8, 1863, in Locust Grove, in northern New York State, to Clinton Levi Merriam, a banker and Republican congressman from New York, and Caroline Hart Merriam. Her father, who was friends with the naturalist John Muir, encouraged his four children to go outdoors and study the surroundings of “Homewood,” the family’s estate.

Her older brother, Clinton, spent his childhood ensnaring animals in the woods and stuffing them. (One of Florence’s pet cats became a victim when it accidentally fell into one of his traps.) Clinton Heart Merriam later became the director of the United States Biological Survey (now the United States Fish and Wildlife Service) and a founder of the National Geographic Society.

Bailey left Smith College to work for her father and later moved to New York City to do social work.

“That she had a social consciousness was unusual,” Bonta said. “Most of the naturalists were entirely focused on the natural world.”

While in New York Bailey learned she had tuberculosis and decided to take the “West” cure, traveling to California, Arizona and Utah, where she wrote travelogues and bird field guides like “My Summer in a Mormon Village” (1894), “A-Birding on a Bronco” (1896) and “Birds of Village and Field” (1898).

Her health was restored, and she moved to Washington to live with her brother Clinton, who introduced her to the naturalist Vernon Bailey. They married in 1899 and began traveling to explore the natural world. Using a simple tent, the couple went camping every spring, summer and fall, with Texas, California, Arizona, North and South Dakota, the Pacific Northwest and New England among their destinations.

“By all accounts their marriage was idyllic,” Bonta said. “It was collaborative, egalitarian, and they supported each other’s projects and efforts.”

On a trip to the Grand Canyon in 1937, Bailey described coming across a cabin after days of traveling with the couple’s old white pack mule, Queen.

“How eagerly we went to work to make camp,” she wrote in “Among the Birds in the Grand Canyon Country” (1939). “Our first real camp of the season, stoning up a safe camp fire, gathering snakebush for a quick blaze to cook by, bringing out cot beds left in the cabin for wayfarers, leveling their feet with stones on the downside of the slope and rolling down our sleeping bags — under the sky! How good it seemed to have heavens for a roof once more!”

Bailey and her husband went on their final camping trip, in upstate New York, in 1941, when he was 78; their aim was to see the Aurora Borealis. He died a year later.

Bailey died of heart failure in Washington on Sept. 22, 1948. She was 85. A small, gray mountain chickadee native to Southern California, Parus gambeli baileyae, had been named in her honor in 1908.

“No woman and very few men had ever known so much about all the birds of the United States,” Bonta wrote in “Women in the Field: America’s Pioneering Women Naturalists.” “And none had tried as hard as Florence to teach everyone — man, woman and child — about the joys of watching birds and the beauty of the natural world.”

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