Birds have always been a favorite hobby to watch. I even had a bird identifier book with me as we traveled across the country and delighted in all the new species I could find and identify, like blackbirds whose color spots changed as we went further east. Or seeing an oriole or cardinal for the first time. Florida is a “birders” delight, shore birds in particular, if you can handle the heat and humidity (which I don’t). Point is, finding them in nature and not on hats is so much more rewarding. And enjoying the migratory birds as they come and go is an assuring sign that all is well (although staying diligent in their journeys is essential). My local Zoo also provided unusual species, like the African weaver birds and penguins.
When Florence Merriam Bailey was born in 1863, birds were more often seen ornamenting women’s hats than they were in the wild! In fact, on one walk through Manhattan in 1886, she counted 40 different species, stuffed and mounted for fashion. The pioneering ornithologist wanted to stop this trend, which killed an estimated five million birds a year. Her solution was to encourage people to go out and admire living birds through bird watching. “We won’t say too much about the hats,” she declared. “We’ll take the girls afield, and let them get acquainted with the birds. Then of inborn necessity, they will wear feathers never more.”
I love feathers too and have them sprinkled around my home. But no birds were harmed, like my peacock feathers, or an owl’s wing gift from a native shaman who recycles all things. Winged things (other than tiny bugs) bring me calm.
Bailey developed an early interest in birds, but when she went to Smith College in 1882, she learned that most ornithologists had little interest in bird behavior. Instead, they studied birds which had been killed, skinned, and mounted for private or museum collections. Bailey proposed that naturalists should learn to observe living birds in their habitats. She recommended an opera glass to allow bird watchers to see details: “The student who goes afield armed with opera-glass,” she declared, “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.”
In 1889, at the age of 26, she published “Birds Through An Opera-Glass.” It was the first modern bird watching field guide: an illustrated guide to recognizing 70 common species in the wild, written for hobbyists and young people. Her approach of watching birds through magnification formed the basis of modern bird watching, which still uses binoculars today. Her book was also unusual because it was published under her own name, an uncommon practice at the time. Bailey’s independent and feminist streaks come out in her writing about her beloved birds too. “Like other ladies, the little feathered brides have to bear their husbands’ names, however inappropriate,” she lamented. “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!”
Bailey went on to write over 100 journal articles and ten books, including the “Handbook of Birds of the Western United States,” which remained a standard text for over 50 years. Bailey was named the first woman associate member of the American Ornithologists’ Union in 1885; in 1929, she became its first woman fellow and received its Brewster Medal, which recognizes authors of exceptional work about birds, in 1931. In a fitting tribute to this trailblazing advocate for birds, eminent American biologist Joseph Grinnell named a subspecies of mountain chickadee after her in 1908: with the scientific name of Parus gambeli baileyae and the common name of Mrs. Bailey’s Chickadee.
Are you a birder? What kinds of activities do you engage in and what surprise findings did you encounter? A good pair of binoculars helps your searches. Look up, look down and everywhere in between. Bet you find something new 😉
Making a difference comes in many shapes and sizes. Bravo Florence for being woke enough to make a difference!
For more info on birding for kids here is a list of other publications:
Florence Merriam Bailey’s inspiring story is told in the lovely picture book biography, “She Heard the Birds,” for ages 5 to 9 at https://www.amightygirl.com/she-heard-the-birds
Her book “Birds: Through an Opera-Glass” is also still available in print at https://amzn.to/3vLOY7s
For several great kids’ books about Mighty Girls who love birds, we highly recommend “Bird Count” for ages 4 to 8 (https://www.amightygirl.com/bird-count
), “Who Gives a Hoot?” for ages 6 to 9 (https://www.amightygirl.com/who-gives-a-hoot
), “Stand on the Sky” for ages 9 to 12 (https://www.amightygirl.com/stand-on-the-sky
To encourage children interested in birdwatching, we recommend the kid-friendly Kidwinz Binoculars for ages 3 to 8 (https://www.amightygirl.com/binoculars
) the Bird Log for Kids for ages 5 to 12 (https://www.amightygirl.com/bird-log-kids
Young birders will also love the “Beginning Birdwatcher’s Book” for ages 7 and up (https://www.amightygirl.com/beginning-birdwatcher-s-book
) the field guide “The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America” for ages 9 and up (https://amzn.to/3lTAV7Q
) a colorful board book celebrating birds for toddlers at https://amzn.to/2VBv2oy
For more books, toys, gear, and clothing for kids who love birds, visit our blog post “Feathered Friends: Books, Toys, and Clothing for Mighty Girl Bird Lovers” at https://www.amightygirl.com/blog?p=30089