OUR FIRST FIELD GUIDE
Living in upstate New York the Merriam family was well-off and all its members were interested in natural science. Florence's older brother, C. Hart Merriam, became the first head of the Biological Survey and was an expert on mammals. One of his talented field biologists was Vernon Bailey whom Florence married in 1899. The Baileys spent much of their life together on expeditions to the western United States. She knew our birds well from first hand observation.
Mrs. Bailey's first bird book had been A-Birding on a Bronco (1896). It tells of her birding observations during a period of convalescence after an attack of tuberculosis. It was a time she spent riding a horse about the land of a ranch in San Diego County. Earlier she spent some weeks with family friends in Palo Alto where she had attended classes at Stanford, though not formally enrolled.
The year she married, Florence published Birds Through an Opera Glass (1899). That was a departure from the typical bird book of her day written for egg or skin collectors. She did not assume interesting birds would be shot and "collected." Yet it was another twenty years before binoculars largely replaced the gun among bird students.
In 1902 when Mrs. Bailey published her Handbook it was clearly a bridge from the old era to the next. Her husband, Vernon, contributed a lengthy introduction giving detailed directions on how to kill, treat and preserve bird skins. She added a brief section on the life zones (boreal, sonoran, transitional) that were first denoted by her brother. Finally, the book contained a section on the importance of bird protection. The first federal bird protection law had taken effect only two years earlier. The conservation arguments were made by T. S. Palmer, another Biological Survey scientist and long-time secretary of the new American Ornithologists Union. Though her own brother was an A.O.U. co-founder, Mrs. Bailey was not elected as a fellow until 1929, at age 66. She was its first woman selected. By then she had already published her last bird book, the definitive Birds of New Mexico (1928).
Two of Ms Bailey's books were illustrated by the young Louis Agassiz Fuertes A-Birding and Handbook. Fuertes was this country's best-known and perhaps finest bird artist between Audubon and Roger Tory Peterson. Fuertes had been discovered and his career promoted by the aged Elliott Coues. Through Coues he came to work on the Bailey books and they were a great boost to his nascent career.
What makes the Handbook a landmark? It was the first to give the simple measurement in inches of each species. A key fact for field comparison. While using some scientific terms like mandible and emarginate, it gave fairly clear and understandable descriptions of each species. It gave easy to find, brief description of distribution, nest, food. Though many illustrations are of museum specimens lying on their backs, feet sticking up, the book also gave some useful small line drawings of distinguishing parts of certain species. Often it describes the bird's song or calls. Handbook was organized in taxonomic order, not by color or habitat or scrambled. It was a single volume and inexpensive. Houghton Mifflin wanted it to sell well. It did. My copy is a seventh edition, 1917. They were warming up for the Peterson guide which they published in 1934.
After Mrs. Bailey's book came came Ralph Hoffmann's Guide to the Birds of New England and Eastern New York (1904). Twenty-three years later he published Birds of the Pacific States. All those years later he still thanked Florence Bailey in his Preface for being allowed to use measurements from her Handbook. Hoffmann explicitly said his books were to help identify birds "as seen out of doors." He used the term "field marks."
Next came several pocket-sized Bird Guide volumes for eastern and western species, land and water. They were written by Chester Reed, published by Doubleday starting in 1906. Each book is 3 x 5 inches, with a written description and color illustration of one species per page. It borrows categories from Mrs. Bailey's approach: size, distribution, nest, note. Reed's small books were used daily by a group of young birders in the early 1900s called the Bronx County Bird Club, of which Peterson would be only the most famous member. Other top ornithologists who started in this group included Joseph Hickey and Allan Cruickshank. Without Bailey's beginning, we might never have gotten to Peterson and modern birding.
Here are some comments in Handbook, showing her familiarity with our birds and our area:
But not everything has remained the same:
Of the American Robin she could write, "Flocks are sometimes seen eating ivy berries in the cemeteries of San Francisco, but are so timid they hide in the brush in great trepidation on the approach of man." [In those days it was still legal to hunt robins.]
And in light of today's reality, consider this poignant passage: "The brushy parts of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco abound with quail, and from the benches one can watch the squads of plump hen-like creatures as they move about with stately tread or stand talking sociably in low monosyllables."
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