Oft called the “First Lady of Ornithology,” Florence Merriam Bailey broke barriers as a woman by developing a pioneering approach to ornithological study that has come to define modern bird-watching. Having developed her interests exploring the wooded hilltops around her family’s Homewood estate outside Locust Grove, New York, she is today remembered not only for her expertise, but her moving writings and activism.
At 26, she wrote what is considered the first bird field guide in the modern tradition, “Birds Through An Opera-Glass.” She traveled widely and spent almost three decades with her husband covering the American West. Of her many books, “Birds of New Mexico” is regarded as her magnum opus. Her writings were compared favorably to those of John Muir and John Burroughs, and she was known as “one of the most literary ornithologists of her time, combining an intense love of birds and remarkable powers of observation with a fine talent for writing and a high reverence for science.”
She waged a successful battle before Congress against the indiscriminate killing of birds for feathers to decorate ladies’ hats (a fashion trend that resulted in the death of over 5 million birds annually). She is the first woman to be elected a Fellow of the American Ornithologists Union; first woman recipient of the acclaimed Brewster Medal; founding member of the Audubon Society; and both Mount Bailey in southern Oregon and the Bailey’s Mountain Chickadee are named in her honor.
Born into one of Lewis County’s earliest and most influential families, Florence Merriam was born on the family estate – Homewood – just outside Locust Grove in the town of Leyden. Her great grandfather was Judge Nathaniel Merriam, one of Lewis County’s earliest judges; her grandfather was Ela Merriam, a General in the NY Militia, and for years an operator in Lewis County of stage and mail coach lines and one of the men principally responsible for creating and maintaining many of the wooden “plank roads” that ran through the County; her father was Clinton Levi Merriam, a Congressman for Lewis, Jefferson and Herkimer counties and a deft businessman and investment banker; and her brother, C. Hart Merriam, was renowned as the “father of American mammalogy” and, in the fields of zoology and natural history, can scarcely be judged as anything less that preeminent.
So she came from “good stock,” as they say. She grew up at her family’s wooded estate, Homewood, where she cultivated a fascination and passion for birdwatching. Not only did her family greatly support and encourage her scientific pursuits, but famed nature author Ernest Thompson Seton, a family acquaintance and regular visitor to the Merriam home, strongly encouraged Florence to seek out her interests in ornithology and pursue seriously a role in the field. And she did just that. After attending preparatory school, Florence went on to Smith College and received a certificate of completion in 1886 (the college would later award her a Bachelor of Arts) and in 1893-94, she furthered her studies at Stanford University.
In 1885, she joined the American Ornithologists’ Union (OAU), a group in which her brother was a founding member. She was the first woman to do so. A few years later, at the young age of 26, she published her first book, Birds Through an Opera Glass (1889). The book was monumental, considered to be the first modern field guide for birdwatching. Her purpose in writing it was to benefit and aid both ornithologists and the casual observer when birdwatching. Her book truly set her place in the field as a serious ornithologist, characterizing her expertise and strength as a writer. In following years, she released many more publications on both scientific writings and one memoir on her travels, particularly her experience with visiting the Latter Day Saints group.
Vernon Bailey, a biological naturalist and friend of the family, was staying with the Merriams when he inevitably met Florence. Due to their shared passions, the two got along quickly and were married on December 16, 1899. The couple shared their lives traveling across the country together conducting field work, with Vernon studying animals and Florence studying birds. Her strength and vitality is especially remarkable considering that she experienced ill health for a large portion of her life, including tuberculosis. The couple had no children, instead devoting their life to scientific service.
Along with her invaluable scientific expertise, Florence Merriam Bailey was renowned in her activist work. Traditional ornithology consisted of general classifications and identification. Oftentimes, scientists conducted this research through the use of the “skins” of deceased birds, which were typically found in private collections. Florence Merriam Bailey, on the other hand, was much more interested in studying the behaviors and manner of birds, so she championed the study of live birds and is generally considered the first to have proposed using binoculars when birding. Her passion motivated her to found the Audubon Society of the District of Columbia, a group dedicated to the conservation of birds. Now, ornithology is mostly concerned with the study of living birds as opposed to dead birds, much thanks to Florence Merriam Bailey.
Additionally, she was disheartened at the act of killing birds for use of their feathers in fashion. Women’s hats adorned with bird feathers were particularly fashionable. Moved to publicize this slaughter, Florence wrote passionately against the practice of decorating hats in that fashion and ultimately laws were passed outlawing the practice.
Throughout her life, Florence Merriam published under her own name, an unusual practice at the time. Her independence and belief that the efforts of women deserved respect was often reflected in her own writing. In describing a female warbler, for example, she wrote: “Like other ladies, the little feathered brides have to bear their husbands’ names, however inappropriate. What injustice! Here an innocent creature with an olive-green back and yellowish breast has to go about all her days known as the black-throated blue warbler, just because that happens to describe the dress of her spouse!”
Florence Merriam Bailey died on September 22, 1948 in Washington, D.C. She is interred with her family in the old Merriam cemetery along Route 12D in Locust Grove, Lewis County, New York. Her legacy is reflected in her dedication to modernizing the field of ornithology. In her honor, a subspecies of chickadee in California was named after her – the Bailey’s Mountain Chickadee (Parus gambeli baileyae), as was a mountain in the Oregon Cascade Range (Mt. Bailey). Some other highlighted publications include: Birds of Village and Field: A Bird Book for Beginners (1898); Handbook of Birds of the Western United States, Including the Great Plains, Great Basin, Pacific Slope, and Lower Rio Grande Valley (1902); Birds of New Mexico (1928). Her rich and literary writing is as impressive as her knowledge in the field.