by Denny Olson

From a recent, unfortunately unattributed, social media post …

“When Florence Merriam Bailey was born in 1863, birds were more often seen ornamenting women’s hats than they were in the wild. In fact, on one walk through Manhattan in 1886, she counted 40 different species, stuffed and mounted for fashion. The pioneering ornithologist wanted to stop this trend, which killed an estimated 5 million birds a year. Her solution was to encourage people to go out and admire living birds through bird watching. ‘We won’t say too much about the hats,’ she declared. ‘We’ll take the girls afield, and let them get acquainted with the birds. Then of inborn necessity, they will wear feathers never more.’

Bailey developed an early interest in birds, but when she went to Smith College in 1882, she learned that most ornithologists had little interest in bird behavior. Instead, they studied birds which had been killed, skinned, and mounted for private or museum collections. Bailey proposed that naturalists should learn to observe living birds in their habitats. She recommended an opera glass to allow bird watchers to see details: ‘The student who goes afield armed with opera-glass,’ she declared, ‘will not only add more to our knowledge than he who goes armed with a gun, but will gain for (themselves) a fund of enthusiasm and a lasting store of pleasant memories.’

In 1889, at the age of 26, she published Birds Through An Opera-Glass. It was the first modern bird watching field guide: an illustrated guide to recognizing 70 common species in the wild, written for hobbyists and young people. Her approach of watching birds through magnification formed the basis of modern bird watching, which still uses binoculars today. Her book was also unusual because it was published under her own name, an uncommon practice at the time. Bailey’s independent and feminist streaks come out in her writing about her beloved birds too. ‘Like other ladies, the little feathered brides have to bear their husbands’ names, however inappropriate,’ she lamented. ‘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!’

Bailey went on to write over 100 journal articles and ten books, including the Handbook of Birds of the Western United States, which remained a standard text for over 50 years. Bailey was named the first woman associate member of the American Ornithologists’ Union in 1885; in 1929, she became its first woman fellow and received its Brewster Medal, which recognizes authors of exceptional work about birds, in 1931. In a fitting tribute to this trailblazing advocate for birds, eminent American biologist Joseph Grinnell named a subspecies of mountain chickadee after her in 1908: with the scientific name of Parus gambeli baileyae and the common name of Mrs. Bailey’s Chickadee.”

From the times when Florence probably risked a black eye and split lip for such audacity toward a few-thousand-year tradition of misogyny, we’ve come a short way toward gender full-partnership. Fifteen women are now elected heads of state in the world (out of almost 200 countries). My best male friends all agree that most of the world’s political problems will not be solved until women are fully in charge. Florence is our kind of woman. And, I get to watch Mrs. Bailey’s Chickadee go in and out of a nest box just outside my office window every day — nesting in the spring, and warming in the winter. Every time I lift my “opera glasses” to get a better look, I think, “Oh yeah, she started that, too …”

“She Heard the Birds: The Story of Florence Merriam Bailey” is a beautiful little picture book about her life.