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Although it is somewhat obscured by such greats as Roger Tory Peterson, there were a number of women involved in the study of living birds, including Mary Treat, whom I've written about in an earlier diary. Probably one of the most well know of these was Florence Merriam Bailey.  Born Florence Augusta Merriam in Locust Grove, New York, during the middle of the Civil War, she was much influenced by her father, who corresponded with John Muir, and her brother, C. Hart Merriam, who was a well-known zoologist and inventer of the life zone concept. Her brother helped found the National Geographic Society in 1888. Florence Merriam studied at Smith College, but never graduated.  She did later receive an honorary degree from the same college.  She married the field biologist Vernon Bailey in 1899, continuing her interest in the natural world, especially birds.

One of the pioneers of live bird study, Merriam wrote for the Audubon Society for a number of years, including a series of notes that later became the first of the guides for identifying living birds.  It was she and not the ornithologist Ludlow Griscom, who is often credited with it, who pioneered the use of binoculars for bird study. A bout with tuberculosis sent her west to California in 1888 and she joined her mother and brother for a trip to the Pacific Northwest the following year. The same year she published "Birds Through an Opera Glass." She became more and more alarmed about the shooting of birds for adorning women's hats and campaigned vigorously for laws to stop the practice.

Not one to follow custom, Florence Merriam refused to use a man's name as author for her books.  She decried the fact that birds common names were usually descriptive of the male of the species. Still she married in 1899 and traveled with her husband through much of the West, which allowed her to build on her knowledge of the birds of that part of the United States. This resulted in the production of several books on the then relatively poorly known region.  Among these, she published a well researched book on the birds of New Mexico in 1928 (for which she received the American Ornithologists' Union's Brewster Medal in 1931). This volume is still is useful, despite name changes.  I know because I have a copy on my book shelf.

The West must have agreed with her because she lived into her eighties.  She was another woman who became the first of her sex in several areas of male-dominated endeavors. She was the first woman associate member of the American Ornithologists' Union in 1885, and its first woman fellow in 1929.  A true female pioneer in Ornithology and a great conservationist, Florence Merriam Bailey died in Washington, D. C. in 1948 at the age of 85!

Internet References:

Florence Merriam Bailey: Pioneering Naturalist:

Florence Augusta Merriam Bailey.  

Originally posted to Desert Scientist on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 05:10 PM PDT.

Also republished by Backyard Science, SciTech, and J Town.

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