At a time when birdwatching meant killing birds, Florence Bailey had a different idea

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One of the greatest friends Washington’s wrens, robins, and titmice ever had was the author of a book beautifully titled “Birds Through an Opera-Glass.” Her name was Florence Merriam Bailey and she was one of the first to defend a radical idea: if you want to learn more about birds, it’s better to look at a living one through binoculars than to hold a dead one in your hands.

“I think she is a very interesting person,” said Lisa Alexanderexecutive director of an organization Bailey helped found in 1897, the Audubon Naturalist Society, in Chevy Chase, Maryland. The group will celebrate its 125th anniversary with a gala gathering on June 2.

In the late 1800s, Americans exterminated entire bird populations to satisfy the human desire to decorate hats, scarves, and coats with feathers. Bailey denounced the fashion industry’s insatiable appetite for birds.

“The history of the Audubon movement involved many female naturalists,” said Alexander. “They are women who were really shocked by the slaughter of birds for fashion and food. It was women who planted the seed we needed to do something about it.”

What’s especially noteworthy, Alexander said, is that women like Bailey were doing this work — including 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 all had to do it by persuasion,” said Alexander.

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

Bailey published “Birds Through an Opera-Glass” when she was 26 and continued to study birds throughout her life, writing both popular works intended to encourage laymen to birdwatch, and more scientific works describing birds in detail. that come from different areas.

In 1899 she married Vernon Bailey, the principal naturalist for the US 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 caused to native birds, cats — along with English sparrows — were among Bailey’s least favorite things. “I would be in favor of a cat license, which would greatly reduce the number of unfed stray cats that have to hunt for their livelihood,” she once said.

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

“Kalorama was pretty far away,” said Alexander. “It was much greener than now.”

In a 1916 interview with the Washington Evening Star, Bailey described the quails roaming the outskirts of Washington “fed by the police patrolling the outskirts of town.” She recommended sleeping on the porch as a way to really get to know different birds. You could hear them when they migrated at night, she said, and in the morning you could wake up 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 schoolchildren, teachers, and others interested in birds in Washington. Bird walks organized by Bailey could attract hundreds of participants. She invited teachers such as: Edward Avis“a well-known bird imitator, whistler and violinist” from Connecticut.

Bailey died in 1948. In a memoir in the ornithological magazine The Auk, Paul H. Oeser wrote: “Although she was not a robust woman and as a girl under threat of tuberculosis, she developed a wonderful vitality, both physical and mental. The rich experiences of the outdoors, especially in the great Southwest that she loved, the company of her husband, and the encouragement of the work they accomplished—these were the rewards of the arduous life she chose to pursue.

One of Florence Merriam Bailey’s messages was that birdwatching didn’t have to be difficult. She wrote: “The student who goes out armed with opera glass and camera will not only add more to our knowledge than he who goes armed with a rifle, but will acquire for himself a fund of enthusiasm and a lasting store of pleasant memories. Many more than all statistics is the sanity and serenity of mind that comes when we step away from the turmoil of the world to have a quiet conversation with nature.”

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