The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Remembering Florence Merriam Bailey, the bird woman of Washington

An Eastern bluebird at the Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
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One of the greatest friends the wrens, robins and chickadees of Washington ever had was the author of a book with the wonderful title “Birds Through an Opera-Glass.” Her name was Florence Merriam Bailey and she was among the first to champion a radical idea: If you want to learn about birds, it’s better to look at a live one through a pair of binoculars than to hold a dead one in your hands.

“I think she’s a really interesting person,” said Lisa Alexander, executive director of an organization Bailey helped found in 1897, the Audubon Naturalist Society, in Chevy Chase, Md. The group is celebrating its 125th anniversary with a gala gathering on June 2.

In the late 19th century, Americans were wiping out entire bird populations to satisfy the human desire to adorn hats, scarves and coats with feathers. Bailey decried the insatiable hunger the millinery trade had for birds.

“The history of the Audubon movement involved a lot of women naturalists,” said Alexander. “It’s women who were really appalled by the slaughter of birds for fashion and food. It was women who kind of planted the seed that we needed to do something about it.”

What’s especially remarkable, Alexander said, is that women such as Bailey were doing this work — which included lobbying for the passage of what became the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 — at a time when they didn’t even have the right to vote.

“They had to do it all by persuasion,” Alexander said.

Among Bailey’s tools of persuasion: enticing people to go outside and look at the birds. She was born in 1863 and grew up on a family estate in Locust Grove, N.Y., near the Adirondacks. Bailey attended Smith College, where she began leading birding hikes for students.

Bailey published “Birds Through an Opera-Glass” when she was 26 and continued to study birds throughout her life, penning both popular works aimed at encouraging lay people to embrace birdwatching and more scholarly works describing in detail birds native to various areas.

In 1899, she married Vernon Bailey, the chief field naturalist of the U.S. Biological Survey. They built a house at 1834 Kalorama Road NW, a house remembered, one visitor wrote, for “its oaks and squirrels and birds (but no cats!).”

Because of the damage they did to native birds, cats — along with English sparrows — were among Bailey’s least-favorite things. “I would favor a license for cats, which would greatly diminish the number of unfed alley cats that must hunt for their living,” she once said.

While it’s hard today to imagine the Baileys’ Adams Morgan home as a sylvan retreat, apparently it was.

“Kalorama was pretty far out,” said Alexander. “It was much more verdant than it is today.”

In a 1916 interview with the Washington Evening Star, Bailey described the coveys of quail that roamed the fringes of Washington, “fed by the police patrolling the outskirts of the city.” She recommended porch sleeping as a way to really become familiar with different birds. You’d be able to hear them as they migrated at night, she said, and in the morning you could awaken to a chorus of birdsong.

By 1912 — in between research trips to the American West with her husband — Bailey was responsible for planning educational programs for Washington schoolchildren, teachers and others interested in birds. Bird walks organized by Bailey could attract hundreds of participants. She invited lecturers such as Edward Avis, “a noted bird mimic, whistler and violinist” from Connecticut.

Bailey died in 1948. In a memorial essay in the ornithological journal the Auk, Paul H. Oehser wrote: “Though not a robust woman, and as a girl threatened with tuberculosis, she developed a wonderful vitality, both physically and mentally. The rich experiences of the outdoors, especially in the great Southwest which she loved, the companionship of her husband, and the stimulation of the work they were accomplishing — these were the rewards of the arduous life she chose to pursue.”

Among Florence Merriam Bailey’s messages was that birding didn’t have to be arduous. She wrote: The “student who goes afield armed with opera-glass and camera will not only add more to our knowledge than he who goes armed with a gun, but will gain for himself a fund of enthusiasm and a lasting store of pleasant memories. Far more than all the statistics is the sanity and serenity of spirit that comes when we step aside from the turmoil of the world to hold quiet converse with Nature.”