Life Story: Florence Merriam Bailey (1863–1948)

Ornithologist, Writer, and Activist

A scientist and writer who studied birds and fought to protect wildlife.

Florence Merriam Bailey

“Image of Mrs. Florence Merriam Bailey,” in The Condor: A Magazine of Western Ornithology, September-October, 1904. Hathi Trust.

Florence Merriam was born on August 8, 1863, in Locust Grove, New York. Both of her parents came from wealthy New York families. Her mother was a graduate of the Rutgers Female Institute, one of the first women’s colleges in the United States. Her father served in the House of Representatives from 1871 until 1875. She had three older siblings.

Florence grew up on her family’s estate and spent many days outside in nature. Her family was also interested in science. Both her father and her brother, Hart, loved to study nature. When Florence was nine years old, she joined her father and brother on a trip to Florida to collect birds.

Florence’s education was mostly provided at her home. This was common for the children of wealthy families in the countryside, The family also regularly stayed in New York City for several months, where Florence attended private school. As a teenager, Florence went to a private school in Utica, New York. Like her mother, she then attended Smith College, a women’s college, in Massachusetts.

Florence followed her interest in biology and natural science. She was especially interested in ornithology and led birdwatching tours for the Smith College Audubon Society. In her senior year, she published articles in Audubon Magazine, a national publication about birds.

Most ornithologists collected dead birds to study them. But Florence did not want to study dead birds. She was interested in the behavior of living birds in their natural habitat. She conducted most of her research outside watching birds rather than in a laboratory setting.

During her years at Smith, Florence became interested in activism. Fashionable hats at the time were covered in bird feathers. The garment industry killed millions of birds to create such hats. Florence and her good friend, Fannie Hardy, encouraged their fellow students to stop wearing these hats and educated them about the devastating effects on the bird population.

After college, Florence moved to New York City and lived with her family. Both Florence and her mother suffered from poor health. Industrialization made cities like New York unhealthy places to live. Doctors recommended leaving the East Coast and traveling west for more fresh air. The Merriam family followed this advice and spent several months in California in 1889.

During this trip to California, Florence’s health improved. She also discovered more species of birds than she had been able to find on the East Coast. Later that year, she published her first book, Birds Through an Opera Glass. Florence wanted to share her love of birds with as many people as possible. She wrote that her goal in writing the book was to interest “not only young observers but also laymen to know the common birds they see about them.”

Cultivate a philosophic spirit, be content to sit and listen to the voices of the marsh; let the fascinating, mysterious, bewildering voices encompass you and—hold your peace.”

Like many young women of her social class, Florence became active in social work too. She spent the summer of 1891 at the famous settlement house Hull House in Chicago, where she taught working-class women about birds. She spent most winters with her family in New York City, where she worked at settlement houses.

In 1893, Florence found herself ill once again and visited the state of Utah with her mentor Oliver Thorne Miller. Her goals for the trip were to get healthy and to study birds. She did not expect to become fascinated by the Mormon people living there. In response, she wrote a book titled My Summer in a Mormon Village that included her views on the religion’s practices and the lives of women in the community. It was so negative that her brother Hart told her if she published the first draft, she would never be allowed in Utah again. She adjusted her criticism and negative views of the Mormon people before publishing the book in 1895.

After her trip to Utah, Florence moved to Washington, D.C., where she became an active member of multiple scientific organizations. She was a member of the Women’s National Science Club and co-founded the Audubon Society of the District of Columbia in 1897. She taught bird classes and published a textbook on birds that was used in schools across the city.

In 1897, Florence’s book Birds of Village and Field was published. It was a guide written for beginning bird enthusiasts. The book was very popular because it included hundreds of drawings and easy guides for bird identification. Florence stood out among ornithologists because of her talent for writing and her ability to make the study of birds accessible to the general public.

Florence met Vernon Bailey through her brother. Vernon was a naturalist who spent much of his time conducting biological research in the western United States. They married on December 16, 1899. Florence and Vernon had a very close relationship. Both loved nature and research. Vernon supported his wife’s studies and ambition. Florence and Vernon hosted many social gatherings for naturalists and created a supportive scientific community in their home in Washington, D.C.

Florence continued to be concerned about the treatment of birds and became involved in the conservation movement. Her activism in the nation’s capital helped pass the Lacey Act of 1900. This law prohibited the trade of wild animals that had been illegally killed. This was a major victory for bird protection. More laws followed, leading to the end of exotic feathers in fashion.

Vernon took many long trips for work. Florence often joined him to study birds. Most of her research from this time was published in her 1902 book Handbook of Birds of the Western United States, which became a popular textbook.

The Bailey’s trips in nature were nothing like the life Florence had in New York and Washington. They traveled with just one wagon and a single employee to take care of the camp. Food was basic, and they slept on the ground. Florence loved this life.

In 1916, the Biological Survey asked Florence to travel to New Mexico to complete a book on birds in the state. For this work, Birds of New Mexico, Florence received the Brewster Medal of the American Ornithologists’ Union in 1931. She was the first woman to receive this award. Florence continued to research and write about birds. She published her last book about birds in Arizona in 1939.

Florence Merriam Bailey died in Washington, D.C. on September 22, 1948.


  • Audubon Society: Organization that promotes the study of birds.
  • conservation movement: Political movement to protect natural resources, including animals.
  • naturalist: A person who studies nature.
  • ornithology: The study of birds.
  • settlement house: An organization that provided a range of social services to the local community, typically found in poor, urban areas.

Discussion Questions

  • How did Florence Merriam Bailey’s work in science connect to her activism?
  • What new contributions did Florence Merriam Bailey make to ornithology?
  • How did Florence Merriam Bailey educate the general public about birds? Why was that important to her?

Suggested Activities

  • Look at the Vanderbilt costume ball images to see the fashions Florence Merriam Bailey protested against. 
  • Explore the challenges women faced in STEM during this time period. Pair this life story with the life stories of Emily Warren Roebling and Ellen Swallow Richards. What do they have in common? How did their backgrounds influence their careers?
  • Pair this life story with the life story of Katharine Coman, another educated woman whose studies in the western United States influenced her interest in the conservation movement.



Source Notes