When we hear the word “naturalist,” we often think of Charles Darwin and his theories, John Muir, the “Father of National Parks,” and of course, John James Audubon. But let’s not forget the women who rallied to preserve the natural realm. From creating the first avian field guide, to ending the feather trade, to dying in pursuit of birds, these seven femmes prove that the history of incredible women transcends any single month.
Genevieve Estelle Jones
Ohio native Genevieve Estelle Jones was a self-taught scientific illustrator christened the “other Audubon.” After seeing some of Audubon’s paintings at an exhibition, Jones decided to draw the nests and eggs of the 130 bird species nesting in Ohio at the time. But before she could finish, she died from typhoid fever at age 32. Her family spent the next seven years completing the hand-colored plates, of which 90 copies were made. Only 26 still exist.
Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and Minna Hall
1858-1960 and 1864-1944
This two-woman dream team was responsible for taking down the 19th-century plume trade and establishing the National Audubon Society. Appalled by the number of birds being killed in the name of fashion, Hemenway, an impassioned amateur naturalist, and her cousin Hall, persuaded their socialite friends to boycott the trade and protect the wildlife behind it. Ultimately, they recruited 900 women to join the fight, and gave rise to an establishment that, a century later, has grown to 1 million members and supporters strong.
Florence Merriam Bailey
American nature writer and ornithologist Florence Merriam Bailey was a jane of all trades. Not only did she work with the National Audubon Society during its early years, she is also credited for writing the first known bird guide, Birds Through an Opera Glass, published in 1889. A true pioneer in the field, Merriam protested the mistreatment, killing, and trade of feathered animals. Her legacy still remains in the form of a subspecies of the California Mountain Chickadee, Parus gambeli baileyae, that was named in her honor.
Rachel Carson is most famous for her book Silent Spring, in which she bared the sins of the pesticide industry. In her later writings, the author and activist continued to examine the relationship between people and nature, questioning whether human beings are truly the dominant authority. Needless to say, she was an outspoken advocate for the environment and one of the greatest social revolutionaries of her time.
This female ornithologist dedicated the majority of her life to just one kind of bird: The Greater Prairie-chicken. Frances Hamerstrom headed a research team that ultimately saved the eccentric species from extinction in Wisconsin. She helped identify the ideal habitat for prairie-chickens, and was also one of the first to put colored leg bands on wild birds—a technique that has helped reveal important information on bird behavior through the decades.
When faced with the grim diagnosis of melanoma, 50-year-old Phoebe Snetsinger turned her life upside down: She went from being a housewife to racing around the globe as a competitive birder. Despite being beaten and raped in Papua New Guinea, Snetsinger never gave up on her passion. In 1995, she broke a world record by being the first person to spot more than 8,000 species of birds. A short time later she died in a bus crash while birding in Madagascar. But she will always be celebrated for living life with absolute fearlessness.
These women are just a few of the heros who forged the path for the modern-day bird-conservation movement. Today’s ornithologists, birders, and activists certainly match their passion and dedication. In fact, in 2011, of the 47 million birdwatchers in the United States, more than half were women. Between women spearheading sustainable projects around the world, Audubon’s standout conservationists, and badass chicks who love to bird . . . our avians are in very good hands.