Women writing birds

Olive Thorne Miller

Making nature writing accessible for all

Illustration of a parrot in a cage. In the background a child is looking at the animal through the bars.

Harriet Mann Miller, better known by her pen name Olive Thorne Miller, contributed to the bird welfare movement of the 19th century by protesting against Victorian taxidermy fashion, which she considered ‘feather monstrosities by which milliners disfigure their hats’ (Miller 118). Like Susan Cooper, she rooted her activism in the observation of nature. She began identifying birds at the age of 50, encouraged by her friend Sara A. Hubbard, who was an avid bird-watcher.

A portrait of Olive Thorne Miller from 'A Woman of the Century' (1893) edited by Frances Elizabeth Willard and Mary Ashton Rice Livermore

Before joining the American Ornithologists’ Union in 1901, Olive Thorne Miller spent decades promoting bird-watching and care through her writing, underlining the beneficial attributes of birds and their positive impact on agricultural economics through the dissemination of seeds.

Her works constitute valuable examples of environmental education, particularly those which she defined as ‘sugar-coated pills of knowledge’ for children, as Florence Merriam Bailey reports in her article ‘In Memoriam: Olive Thorne Miller’, published in The Auk (qtd. in Bailey 165).

Illustration of a woman's head with a hat that is decorated with a a body of a bird

In Little Folks in Feathers and Fur (1873), the author simplifies her depictions of animal ways of life, making them accessible for young readers: ‘Long words are carefully left out’, she informs, ‘nothing is said of scientific classification, and very little of scientific names’ (3).

With the similar purpose of making science attainable for the general public, she published Bird-Ways in 1885, a meticulous study on birds that flew freely about a bird-room she had set in her own house, where she kept 35 species of birds which she bought from bird stores for observation.

Olive Thorne Miller culminates this text with a direct call for interspecies harmony in a chapter titled ‘These Are Your Brothers’, which draws on her conclusions of bird-watching to promote a more empathetic approach to animals. In a fervent critique of the ‘enormous slaughter for purposes of personal adornment . . . or, worst of all, gratifying our love of murder’ (203), she points out several similarities between bird and human behaviour, indicating each bird’s unique personality to expose the cruelty of hunting sports, the meat industry and feather fashion.

Birds seem to be the happiest creatures on earth, yet they have none of what we call the comforts of life.

Olive Thorne Miller, The First Book of Birds, 1899

Miller’s writing may be read as evidence of how birding can lead to animal protection activism, a task which she also carried out through her publications in the journal of the National Audubon Society, an organisation for the conservation of birds founded by Harriet Hemenway and Minna B. Hall in 1901.