Since the American Ornithological Society established its lifetime achievement award in 1993, it has honored seven women for their contributions to the scientific study of birds. Known as ornithology, this is just one discipline within the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields that is so popular today. However, these women are not the only notable female ornithologists. Several other individuals can also serve as role models for girls interested in STEM disciplines.
Read on to learn about three American women who made scientific breakthroughs in the study of birds during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. All of them are inspirational due to their lasting impact on wildlife conservation and research. They also illustrate the impact that women can have on the STEM disciplines and why it is important to encourage girls to pursue a STEM education and careers.
Genevieve Estelle Jones
Genevieve Estelle Jones, who lived from 1847 to 1879, became interested in learning about the nests and eggs of birds as a child. However, when she looked for resources to help her to identify the species belonging to the ones that she found, she discovered that no encyclopedia of American bird nests and eggs existed. Disappointed by this, she set out to change the situation at the age of 29.
When she attended the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, she saw several paintings from John James Audubon’s famous text Birds of America. Afterwards, she decided to create a similar book with illustrations of the nests and eggs of all the birds found in Ohio, where she lived. This effort would account for 130 species, nearly all of which also inhabit most of the contiguous US.
Based on careful measurements of nests and eggs freshly gathered by Jones’ brother, she and a friend began drawing life-size images of them. They used new specimens instead of those in the Jones family’s personal collection in order to ensure that the book’s illustrations depicted the precise colors found in nature. The completed pictures would be bound into a series of books and offered for purchase in black and white or watercolors.
The first set of illustrations and accompanying descriptions that were released received praise from leading ornithologists of the time due to their scientific accuracy. Unfortunately, after completing only 15 illustrations of the planned 130 species, Jones died of typhoid fever. However, her family took on the task of finishing her project over the next seven years and published the complete collection in 1886. The series made an important contribution to bird science and filled in a major gap in this STEM discipline.
Florence Merriam Bailey
Born in 1863, Florence Merriam Bailey developed her interest in nature from her father, who was a friend of the famous naturalist John Muir. Bailey attended Smith College, where she became a leading advocate of studying live birds in their natural habitat and was among the first to suggest the use of binoculars for birdwatching. She also organized the Smith College Audubon Society to protest the use of birds and feathers as hat decorations.
Following her college years, Bailey published 10 books and nearly 100 journal articles on ornithology. Her first text comprised works originally published by Audubon Magazine. Among her most well-known books are Birds of Village and Field, Birds Through an Opera Glass, the Handbook of Birds of the Western United States, Birds of New Mexico, and Among the Birds in the Grand Canyon National Park.
Bailey also became the first female associate member of the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU), the first female fellow of the organization, and the first female recipient of its Brewster Medal. Additionally, a variety of California mountain chickadee was named for her. The influence of this trailblazing woman can still be felt in ornithological science today.
Frances Hamerstrom, who lived from 1907 to 1998, studied under the famed naturalist Aldo Leopold at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and was the only woman to receive a graduate degree under him. Her husband also studied with Leopold and became the only individual to receive a doctorate degree under the naturalist.
Frances Hamerstrom and her husband studied the prairie chicken for many years. Among her most significant contributions to prairie chicken behavioral research was the use of colored leg bands to determine that male specimens have territorial boundaries. In addition to these birds, she studied sharp-tailed grouse, pheasant nesting, and raptor and bob-white quail food habits.
Hamerstrom authored 100 reviews, 10 books, and approximately 100 articles. She is known for her role as the project leader of the Prairie Grouse Management Research Unit in Plainfield and for her status as the second woman in Wisconsin to hold a professional wildlife position. In recognition of her accomplishments, she was inducted into the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame in 1996. Her efforts revolutionized wildlife research, and her conservation achievements are evident today in the preservation of wild prairie chickens.