The following is a Woman of Courage profile produced by the St. Lawrence County, NY Branch of the American Association of University Women.
A young women, born in upstate New York, dedicated her life to observing and protecting bird life and recording the wonders of the natural world. She became one of the foremost women writers of her era and traveled for 50 years studying birds. Florence Augusta Merriam was the youngest of three children born to Clinton Levi Merriam and Caroline Hart Merriam on August 8, 1863 in Locust Grove, Lewis County, NY. Their middle child, Clinton Hart Merriam (born December 5, 1855) became the first chief of the U.S. Biological Survey. Both “Hart” and Florence were actively encouraged in their pursuits of natural history by family and friends. While growing up, Florence took an avid interest in the wildlife surrounding her home, especially the birds. Her father had a strong interest in natural history and was a lifelong friend of naturalist John Muir.
Florence was educated in a private school in Utica, New York, and attended Smith College from 1882-86. Although she did not follow a degree course, Smith later granted a her a B.A. in 1921. By the time Florence entered Smith, she had acquired a passion for studying live birds and observing their behaviors. She looked upon birds as living treasures to be studied for more than their bones and feathers. Unitl that time, most naturalists studied birds only as "skins" in private or the few public collections. She preceded Ludlow Griscom in calling for the use of binoculars instead of shotguns when birding.
By 1885, she began to write articles focusing on protecting birds. She was horrified by the fashion trend which not only used feathers, but entire birds to decorate women's hats. Five million birds a year were killed to supply this fashion craze. Scientists, concerned about the killing of birds for millinery ornaments, had formed the Committee on the Protection of North American Birds. Determined to help, Florence organized The Smith College Audubon Society. First organizing bird walks, she eventually involved the students in a campaign to open the public's eyes. She sent out 10,000 circulars by enlisting the help of one hundred students, a third of the college, and wrote articles of protest to newspapers.
She traveled and dabbled in social work after college, but the onset of tuberculosis sent her west to convalesce. After a winter in California to improve her health, she and her mother joined her brother, C. Hart Merriam, for a trip by tugboat to the northwest in 1889. He planned to study the small mammals at Neah Bay, at the tip of the Olympic Peninsula.
Hart was already a well-known naturalist; he was named the first chief of the U.S. Biological Survey (1885-1910), the federal government's first natural sciences agency, which later became the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. As a teenager, he had participated in the Hayden Survey of 1871 which resulted in Yellowstone becoming the world's first national park in 1872. The next year Hart published an extensive report of the birds and mammals of the Yellowstone region. This was one of the first of his over 500 publications. He also helped found the National Geographic Society in 1888. Merriam is famous for his life zone concept. For many years he had felt that temperature exerted the main control over the distribution of plants and animals. By 1889 Merriam was convinced of this and began to categorize the entire North American continent into life zones, which were largely based on temperature.
A young women of 26, Florence collected and developed the series of articles she had written for the Audubon Magazine into her first book, Birds Through an Opera Glass, which was published in 1889. Refusing to assume a man's nom de plume as was common for women writers at that time, her independent ideas came through in her writing. In describing a female warbler, 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!"
Her travels in the West resulted in an improvement in her heath and a number of books. Her experiences in Utah, southern California, and Arizona were chronicled in My Summer in a Mormon Village (1894), A-Birding on a Bronco (1896), and Birds of Village and Field (1898). She moved to Washington, D.C., to live with her brother.
In December 1899 she married Vernon Bailey, a pioneering naturalist with the Biological Survey in his own right. They made extensive trips into the American West together where little was known about its flora and fauna; he focused on the mammals and she on the birds. Altogether she published about 100 articles, mostly for ornithological magazines, and 10 books. Among these were the Handbook of Birds of the Western United States (1902) and Birds of New Mexico (1928).
At the turn of the century, the custom of wearing birds on hats was still in vogue. Florence’s life work was dedicated to educating people about the value of bird life. Finally a bill passed Congress making the interstate shipping of birds illegal. This was a first step in halting the slaughter and decreasing the number of victims, especially among seabirds such as pelicans and grebes. Eventually the laws, changing styles, and continued education stopped the killing birds for hat decoration.
Among her firsts, Florence became the first woman associate member of the American Ornithologists' Union in 1885, its first woman fellow in 1929, and the first woman recipient of its Brewster Medal in 1931, awarded for Birds of New Mexico. She was a founding member of the Audubon Society of the District of Columbia and frequently led its classes in basic ornithology. Her last major written work was Among the Birds in the Grand Canyon National Park, published by the National Park Service in 1939. A variety of California mountain chickadee was named Parus gambeli baileyae in her honor in 1908. She died in Washington, D.C., on September 22, 1948.
Portrait of Florence Merriam Bailey.
Return to the Women of Courage page.
Return to the St. Lawrence County Branch homepage.