Kirtlandii History Lesson: Florence Merriam Bailey

Learn about one of America’s first field guide authors and a trailblazer (literally and figuratively) for women ornithologists.

Facts about Florence Merriam Bailey

  • Florence Bailey was born during the Civil War, on August 8, 1863 in Locust Grove, New York.
  • While studying at Smith College in Northampton New York, Bailey led student groups that argued against the practice of wearing bird feathers in women’s hats.
  • In 1885, Bailey became the 1st woman associate member of the American Ornithologists Union (AOU).
  • In 1897, she was a founding member of the Audubon Society in the District of Columbia.
  • Throughout the late 1880s Bailey helped to organize local chapters of the Women’s National Science Club.
  • She published her first book, Birds Through an Opera Glass, in 1889 at the age of 26. The book was published under her own name, which was an uncommon practice for women authors at the time.
  • Birds Through an Opera Glass, which described 70 common species of birds, is credited as one of the first and most popular field guides of North American birds.
  • Unlike most ornithologists of her age, Bailey preferred to study live birds and their behavior, rather than their “skins” (scientific collections of dead birds). In fact, Bailey is credited with being the first person to propose using binoculars to observe birds (as the title of Birds Through an Opera Glass would imply).
  • Bailey got tuberculosis shortly after finishing Birds Through an Opera Glass and traveled to the western United States in an attempt to improve her health.

  • While out west Bailey continued to observe and write about birds, many of those writings went on to become published works.

  • Among the western publications was Birds of Village and Field (published 1898), which was her second field guide – it contained information on 150 species.

  • Bailey’s field guides were renowned for behavioral observations like nesting, feeding, and vocalization.

  • In 1902 Bailey published Handbook of Birds of the Western United States, a 600-page guide that is still used for reference today.

  • Bailey and her husband, famed naturalist Vernon Bailey, devoted many years of their lives to exploring and documenting natural history and wildlife through the prairies and mountains of the American West. Together they published hundreds of journal articles, including Wild Animals of Glacier National Park, which was jointly published in 1918.

  • Bailey’s masterpiece; The Birds of New Mexico, was published in 1928, it is considered “the first comprehensive report on birdlife of the southwest.”

  • In 1929 Bailey became the AOU’s first women’s fellow, two years later she was awarded the AOU’s prestigious Brewster’s Medal for The Bird’s of New Mexico. Bailey was the first woman to receive the award.

  • Bailey published her final work, Among the Birds in the Grand Canyon National Park in 1939. She was 75 years old at the time of publication.

  • Florence Bailey died on September 22, 1948 in Washington DC.

  • A sub-species of California Mountain Chickadee (Parus gambeli baileyae) is named in her honor. While Mount Bailey, a shield volcano that is part of the Cascade Range in Oregon, was named in honor of her and her husband in 1992.


Source: In Memoriam: Florence Merriam Bailey The Auk, 1952