Women writing birds

Florence Merriam Bailey

An activist against the plumage trade

Mountain chickadee from 'Handbook of birds of the western United States'

In 1885, Florence Merriam Bailey became the first female associate member of the American Ornithologists’ Union, and, in 1929, its first woman fellow. As a pioneering ornithologist as well as an activist, she focused on the live study of birds in their natural habitat, as opposed to the observation of bird corpses in private collections. In 1882, she attended Smith College and wrote nearly 100 journal articles focusing on bird protection and the urgent need to put an end to the plumage trade, which was responsible for the elimination of five million birds every year. In order to abolish this fashionable trend, she founded the Smith College Audubon Society, whose members protested by distributing handbills and writing letters to newspapers.

Portrait of young Florence Merriam Bailey

Her first book, Birds Through an Opera Glass (1889), was based on articles she had written for the Audubon Magazine, and begins with a proposal for the use of binoculars, which she calls ‘opera glasses’, or ‘field glasses’, for bird-watching in cities as well as in the country. This volume includes specific advice on the identification of 70 different species of her ‘feathered neighbours’, with detailed information on their appearance, habits, nests, eggs, song and flight. Additionally, her nature writing mirrors the socio-cultural context of the late 19th century, acknowledging, for example, the emerging role of photography in nature studies, as well as the participation of women in the public sphere.

Like the British ornithologist Mary Elizabeth Barber, Florence Merriam Bailey includes brief feminist reflections in her bird-watching notes, remarking how the condition of the female black-throated blue warbler, baptised after the colours of her male counterpart, resembles the situation of married women:

Like other ladies, the little feathered brides have to bear their husbands’ names, however inappropriate. What injustice!

Florence Merriam Bailey, Birds Through an Opera Glass, 1889

She continued encouraging the appreciation of birds during her travels to the west, publishing the Handbook of Birds of the Western United States (1902), the prized Birds of New Mexico (1928), and, in her later years, Among the Birds in the Grand Canyon Country (1939).

Blue cover of 'Birds through an opera-glass'