In the late 19th century one of the first environmental protection movements sprang up, triggered by public concerns over, of all things, women’s hats.
In the late 1880s, a fashion craze swept through significant portions of western society: bird parts became key components of hats and other accessories. Feathers, wings, even whole birds were used.
An article written for the US National Public Radio network says that by 1886 “more than five million birds were being massacred yearly to satisfy the booming North American millinery trade”.
NPR cites Douglas Brinkley’s 2009 book The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America: “Dense bird colonies were being wiped out in Florida… Some women even wanted a stuffed owl head on their bonnets and a full hummingbird wrapped in bejeweled vegetation as a brooch.”
Fortunately, this avian carnage did not go unnoticed. One bird-loving activist was a young college student named Florence Augusta Merriam (who later married naturalist Vernon Bailey).
She worked out that if women didn’t buy feathered fashions, milliners and designers would stop making the stuff.
But rather than lecture or scold her friends and fellow students on the ethics of killing birds for the sake of fashion, she organised bird-watching outings in which she taught them to appreciate the beauty of birds in their natural environments.
“The birds must be protected; we must persuade the girls not to wear feathers on their hats,” she wrote in 1889 in Bird-Lore, a magazine published by the National Audubon Society.
“We won’t say too much about hats, though… 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 was born into a wealthy family in rural New York on 8 August 1863. She was encouraged to pursue her interest in science from an early age and by the time she entered Smith College, a prestigious school for women, in Massachusetts, in 1882, her studies in ornithology were already well advanced.
An early point of difference in her approach to bird studies is explained in an article published in the Journal of the Sierra College Natural History Museum.
At that time, it says, most naturalists studied the carcasses of dead birds, which were usually housed in private collections. “Florence championed the study of live birds and is considered the first to propose using binoculars when birding.”
Or, as a description of her published by the Smithsonian Institution puts it: “Florence Bailey was at the forefront of the movement to use binoculars, rather than shotguns, to observe birds.”
After finishing at Smith in 1886, Bailey took to bird watching in earnest, writing a series of articles for the National Audubon Society, which in 1889 became the basis for her first book, Birds Through an Opera-Glass, described by the New York Times as “the first field guide to American birds”.
Having contracted tuberculosis, Bailey was sent to convalesce in the warm, dry western climate of California, Arizona and Utah. These travels gave her material for travelogues and bird field guides including Birds of Village and Field in 1898.
As her health improved, she joined her bother, Clinton Hart Merriam, in Washington state, where he was part of a national wildlife survey.
C Hart Merriam was a well-known naturalist and one of the founders of the US Biological Survey, the federal government’s first natural sciences agency, which later became the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
He introduced his sister to a member of the survey, naturalist Vernon Bailey; Florence and Vernon married in 1899 and began travelling and documenting the natural world.
Among the books they produced, the best known are Handbook of Birds of the Western United States, in 1902, and Birds of New Mexico, in 1928.
Much of their fieldwork was incorporated into much larger guides edited by other scientists.
Florence Bailey died in Washington, DC on 22 September 1948.
Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
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